Prehistoric Baby Bottles Are Newly Discovered Part of Late-Stone Age Diet

spouted sippy cups found in bavarian graves of children

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Vessels resembling sippy cups dated 5,500 B.C. have been found, according to a study published in the scientific journal Nature. They tested positive for nonhuman milk, showing the earliest use of domesticated animal milk for feeding babies. The time period between the Stone and Bronze Ages offered many dietary options.

Prehistoric human remains
Dietary information about our prehistoric ancestors can be determined by examining human DNA in bones found by archaeologists. Photo by Ja’Crispy / Shutterstock

According to the study published by Nature, scientists found evidence of milk residue “from three small, spouted vessels that were found in Bronze and Iron Age graves of infants in Bavaria.” It also said that the discovery serves to underscore just how important domesticated animal milk was at the time and “provides information on the infant-feeding behaviours that were practised by prehistoric human groups.” Our understanding of our prehistoric ancestors is always changing, and revelations about their dietary habits still pop up from time to time.

Gathering and Hunting

One of our preconceptions about Stone Age humans is that they primarily feasted on meat that they hunted, while the “gathering” portion of the phrase “hunting and gathering” was a distant second. However, that may not be the case.

Recent studies of human DNA and archaeological remains suggest that gathering was equally if not more important than hunting; that is, leafy vegetables, tubers, and fruits that made up a significant proportion of the diet as evidenced by absence of vitamin deficiencies and general good health,” said Dr. Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. “The conclusion is that humans have always been omnivores, and we still are.”

So why the change in thought from our carnivorous assumptions? According to Dr. Albala, “It’s only recently that archaeologists have been able to recognize vitamin deficiencies like scurvy or rickets from examining human bones, and even more recently that geneticists have been able to trace back human genes thousands of years and extrapolate information about the human diet.”

Prehistoric Diets

Dr. Albala also said that when we find evidence of human feeding sites, what we most often find are bones of small game animals like dogs or rabbits, suggesting animals were killed and brought back to a central location and shared communally.

“Larger game couldn’t be carried, remember,” he said. “It had to be cut up where it’s killed, the bones were usually left behind, and the meat dispersed; things like mammoth, bison, or sea lions. On the other hand, tiny grubs and most plants usually completely disappear, and obviously large mammal bones survive at a much greater rate, so we may get a false impression that most prehistoric peoples ate a lot of meat.”

Finally, Dr. Albala said that we can infer how prehistoric humans prepared their food by observing the few peoples who still live in traditional ways today, which may suggest thousands of years of inherited food culture.

“For example, cooking rings, earth ovens, grinding stones that are still used today, or up until very recently, may explain how food was processed thousands of years ago,” he said. “Fishing weirs that were used by ancient Native Americans may explain how fish became part of the diet before we find evidence of hooks and lines and things like that.”

The newly discovered Bavarian baby bottles are only the most recent in a series of findings that shake up our notions about our early ancestors.

Dr. Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California

Dr. Ken Albala contributed to this article. Dr. Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He earned an M.A. in History from Yale University and a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University.