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Katharina Rebay-Salisbury

These mysterious vessels are among the world’s oldest baby bottles

For decades, archaeologists weren’t sure what to make of peculiar clay vessels that kept turning up during excavations of ancient European villages. The small ceramic cups with open tops fit easily in an adult hand, but they had thin spouts jutting out of them. Some were decorated with geometric patterns; others were shaped like animals. Were they for pouring? For feeding the sick or elderly? Or maybe they were the ancient equivalent of baby bottles, allowing infants and young children to drink through the spout?

Now, scientists say they have solved the mystery by analyzing the residue left inside three vessels similar to the ones pictured above. All three were found in children’s graves from the Bavaria region of Germany and date to between 1200 B.C.E. and 450 B.C.E. When the researchers analyzed the chemical traces on the insides of the vessels, they found fatty acids from milk.

The carbon isotopes inside two of the vessels suggested they held milk from ruminants, such as cows, sheep, or goats. The other once held milk from another type of mammal, perhaps pigs or humans. That means babies were drinking animal milk from bottles at least 3000 years ago, the team reports today in Nature. It wouldn’t have met babies’ nutritional needs the way breast milk or modern formula does, but it could have been used as a supplementary food during weaning.