Three cow bone spoons from Neolithic Serbia, likely used as teething and weaning tools.
Sofija Stefanović et al. 2019 / PLOS One / CC-BY 4.0
In the last decade, Sophie the Giraffe has become the best-selling baby teether on the market, with parents often gifted more than one of this squeaky toy at their baby shower. But in the Neolithic period 8,000 years ago, archaeologists have found that babies were given something a bit different to teethe on: bone spoons.
At the site of Grad-Starčevo on the left bank of the Danube in Serbia, 50 small, spatula-shaped artifacts were discovered in the 1930s. Made out of cow bone and found in domestic contexts, the objects had always been interpreted as some sort of tool. Small marks on the items further suggested to previous archaeologists that they were used intensively, leading to conclusions that the objects were for scraping flour from grinding stones, for making decorations on ceramics, as cosmetic tools, or for applying pigments and dyes to clothing.
A reanalysis of the items as spoons was published last week in PLOS One by a team of Serbian researchers led by Sofija Stefanović of the University of Novi Sad. These experts argue that the spoons “were used for feeding babies and that marks on them can be connected to the usual mouthing behavior [biting, nibbling, gnawing, and pulling] of children who may, up to four years of age, mouth objects up to 50 times during one hour.”
In order to test their hypothesis about the true use of the spoons, Stefanović and colleagues designed an experimental bite-mark analysis in which they used donated baby teeth and dental models to recreate what teething on cow bones would have looked like. After creating over 3,000 tooth marks, they found that most were pits or scoring, and that marks were created on both sides of the bone.
The researchers then analyzed more than 2,000 tooth marks on three of the spoons from Grad-Starčevo. “If the marks were indeed made by children biting the spoon,” they note, “we should be able to show that most of the marks correspond metrically and morphologically to milk teeth marks and are different from marks usually found on bone tools.”
In comparing the experimentally-produced tooth marks and the marks on the Neolithic spoons, Stefanović and colleagues discovered that “the results clearly suggest that the marks found on spoons meet the two main criteria to be interpreted as tooth marks made by children.” Therefore, the main function of these artifacts was baby-feeding.
The discovery of feeding spoons is highly significant archaeologically. In the Neolithic time period, there came a series of dramatic transformations for human culture: a more sedentary way of life thanks to the first plant and animal domestication. This so-called Neolithic Revolution also affected the population structure — reduced mobility, a shift towards high-calorie cereal foods, and a reduction in the length of time that mothers breastfed their babies led to an incredibly rapid population growth. But, as Stefanović and colleagues note, “although prehistoric mothers and babies represent the key pillars of demographic success, their role in this process has not been adequately studied” by previous archaeologists, who were largely unconcerned with ancient domestic life.
With a disciplinary shift in the last three decades to better understanding women and children in the archaeological past, however, we are gaining new insights into the profound changes in prehistoric motherhood.
As Stefanović and colleagues write, “the increased number of babies [in the Neolithic] demanded new daily life routines not only for prehistoric parents but for the whole community.” Studying these bone spoons therefore provides evidence of what children were doing during the weaning period and how their caregivers were accommodating their biological need to bite, nibble, and gnaw on things.
Experimentally, each bone spoon took approximately 25 hours’ worth of work to produce, so the fact that these spoons are found at various sites in the Neolithic period suggests “the appearance of a ‘spoon industry’ for infant feeding,” which is also “a reflection of the need to feed infants with a new type of weaning food,” the researchers note.
The bowl-part of these spoons is shallow, which may mean that babies were eating some type of porridge from them. “Since milk and cereals were already present when the spoons appeared,” Stefanović and colleagues write, “it is plausible that those were the main ingredients of the new baby food.” If this porridge were being mass-produced within the community for its infants, “the appearance of alternative food choices could have had a profound impact on the whole process of motherhood and child care in the Neolithic.”
“Ultimately, this new evidence could renew and stimulate the discussion on the influence of new infant food choices on the duration of breastfeeding,” the researchers conclude. “Moreover, it could also trigger a discussion on the possibilities of new kinds of organization of baby care, given that new, ‘easy-to-prepare’ types of gruel probably allowed other persons to be involved in baby weaning.”
Whether new mothers received spoons as part of a “Neolithic motherhood package” the way that many American moms receive Sophie the Giraffe today may never be known, but this new research clearly demonstrates that a sharing of care outside of the mother-baby dyad almost certainly had profound effects on the survival of children and communities in the Neolithic period.