Milk of ruminants in ceramic baby bottles from prehistoric child graves

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Abstract

The study of childhood diet, including breastfeeding and weaning, has important implications for our understanding of infant mortality and fertility in past societies1. Stable isotope analyses of nitrogen from bone collagen and dentine samples of infants have provided information on the timing of weaning2; however, little is known about which foods were consumed by infants in prehistory. The earliest known clay vessels that were possibly used for feeding infants appear in Neolithic Europe, and become more common throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. However, these vessels—which include a spout through which liquid could be poured—have also been suggested to be feeding vessels for the sick or infirm3,4. Here we report evidence for the foods that were contained in such vessels, based on analyses of the lipid ‘fingerprints’ and the compound-specific δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids of residues from three small, spouted vessels that were found in Bronze and Iron Age graves of infants in Bavaria. The results suggest that the vessels were used to feed infants with milk products derived from ruminants. This evidence of the foodstuffs that were used to either feed or wean prehistoric infants confirms the importance of milk from domesticated animals for these early communities, and provides information on the infant-feeding behaviours that were practised by prehistoric human groups.

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Fig. 1: Description of the child graves and associated feeding vessels.
Fig. 2: Partial gas chromatograms and plots of δ13C and Δ13C values of n-alkanoic acids in infant-feeding vessels from Dietfurt and Augsburg cemeteries, Bavaria.

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All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published Letter.

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Acknowledgements

Background research and travel for this study was funded as part of the framework of the project ‘The value of mothers to society: responses to motherhood and child rearing practices in prehistoric Europe’ which received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (676828). We thank the NERC for partial funding of the National Environmental Isotope Facility (NEIF; Bristol laboratory). J.D. thanks The Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2016-115) for funding and I. Bull and A. Kuhl for technical help. We thank H. Grant of the NEIF (Lancaster laboratory) for stable isotopic characterization of reference standards and derivatizing agents. G. Almstädter, S. Gairhos, K. Grömer, A. Kern, D. Kern, D. Pany-Kucera, K. Wiltschke-Schrotta and M. Berner provided practical support for sampling.

Author information

The project was designed by J.D. and K.R.-S., and the paper was written by J.D., K.R.-S., R.B.S. and R.P.E. J.D. and C.W.-D. performed analytical work and data analysis. A.F. provided vessels and helped with sampling.

Correspondence to J. Dunne or R. P. Evershed.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Peer review information Nature thanks Siân Halcrow and Carl Heron for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Selection of late Bronze/early Iron Age feeding vessels.

Vessels are from Vienna, Oberleis, Vösendorf and Franzhausen-Kokoron (from left to right), dated to around 1200–800 bc. The vessels are approximately 105, 80, 90 and 80 mm high (from left to right). Photographs were taken by K.R.-S.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Modern-day baby feeding from reconstructed infant-feeding vessel of the type investigated in this study.

Photograph was taken by H. Seidl da Fonseca.

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