Stone Age Parents Used Sippy Cups, Too

A modern baby tries out a modern reconstruction
Image: University of Bristol

A new study suggests that small pottery cups from Stone Age central Europe were, in fact, basically sippy cups used to feed animal milk to children, allowing earlier weaning and, very likely, a population boom.

The New York Times covered the study, newly published in the journal Nature. It’s not a new notion that these were likely essentially prehistoric sippy cups; many have been found over the years in the graves of children and infants. But the study offers hard chemical evidence, thanks to residue testing the pots:

On Wednesday archaeologists reported in the journal Nature that three such objects, all found in the graves of children in Bavaria dating from about 2,500 to 3,200 years ago, once held dairy products, most likely milk from ruminants, like cows or goats.

Proving exactly how any ancient bit of pottery was used is difficult. But Julie Dunne, a geochemist at the University of Bristol in England and one of the authors of the report, said the location of the feeding cups in child graves along with the new chemical evidence is “as close as you’re going to get” to that proof.

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Something nice to remember if you ever find yourself stressed about how to feed your child: people have been getting creative with their available resources for a very, very long time. (One of the bottles had multiple types of fat, meaning that the kid may have been getting a combination of animal’s milk and human breastmilk.) They were even whimsically designed, much like a modern sippy cup covered in goofy animals or cartoon characters: “I can just imagine a little prehistoric child being given one of these with milk in it and laughing,” Julie Dunne, the paper’s lead author and archaeologist at the University of Bristol, told NPR. “They’re just fun. They’re like a little toy as well.”

They got some additional validation from a friend’s kid, too: “He loved it,” said Dunne. “He started immediately sort of suckling from it. He was really happy, sitting there playing with it and suckling from it for ages.”

The development had major, major implications for human history. Via NPR:

Until now, scientists hadn’t “recognized that the introduction of animal milk to infants’ diets could have changed a woman’s fertility,” says Halcrow, who was not involved in the study. She wrote a commentary that appears in Nature alongside the new study to provide context.

“There’s clinical evidence that when women are breastfeeding, they have a period of infertility,” says Halcrow. “So if women aren’t constantly suckling their young” — for example, because they’re using animal milk to wean their children earlier — “they could actually have more babies during their lifetime, and it could result in an increase in population size.”

“This could lead to some of the population changes that we see around the Neolithic [period], with the major demographic explosion,” she says.

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Luckily the course of human history did not depend on assembling any of those damn straw cups that now follow the sippy cup, because none of us would be here.

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