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30 December 2019
Babies in the Neolithic were given bone spoons to teethe on

At the Neolithic site of Grad-Starčevo 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 made 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, 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.In comparing the experimentally-produced tooth marks and the marks on the Neolithic spoons, Stefanović and colleagues discovered that the marks found on spoons could be interpreted as tooth marks made by children. Therefore, the main function of these artifacts was baby-feeding.
     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. 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.
     "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."

Edited from Forbes (24 December 2019)

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