How did prehistoric people handle baby poo? – Motherhood in prehistory
Motherhood in prehistory

How did prehistoric people handle baby poo?


Every parent knows: there is pee and poo. Plenty. In the first few months pretty much everywhere. Nowadays, we contain them – for the most part – in disposable nappies (diapers). Disposable nappies are an invention of the second half of the 20th century. In Britain, Valerie Hunter Gordon, who recently died aged 94, invented a two-part nappy system after her third child in 1947. It was composed of an outer layer sewn of old nylon parachutes, and an inner layer of tissue wadding and cotton wool, which could be disposed of.  In the US, Pampers began to be developed in the 1950ies. Form the start, Pampers were designed as an all-in-one system and became incredibly popular throughout the western world.

Disposable nappies (diapers) are a blessing to many parents, although they produce a lot of waste. Today, there are wide range of re-usable cloth nappies (diapers) on the market, which promise to be better for baby’s skin as well as environmental benefits. If they are indeed better for the environment, is still under debate: it depends largely on how cloth nappies are produced, laundered and dried. My experience with re-usables was brief. It turned out they were not for me. I did not factor in that cloth nappies are a lot bulkier, and regular baby clothes do not account for the added volume!

Swaddled babies from Bronze Age Cyprus, Greece

Before disposables, cloth nappies were used in the western world. Early potty training was desired to avoid the tedious process of laundering. But going back in time, there is not much information available on how people got on with baby pee and poo. A significant amount of prehistoric iconographic and classical textual information concerns wrapping and swaddling babies. This practice is suitable in cold and dry climates and provides warmth and protection for the baby, whilst it also restricts movement and is associated with beliefs about helping the baby finish growing correctly outside the womb, moulding the body. Archaeological evidence of swaddling dates back to 4000 BC in Central Asia, and votive offerings from Agia Triada on Crete attest to the practice for the Bronze Age (2600-2000 BC). Swaddling remained popular throughout the Roman period into the Middle Ages and beyond.

Soranus (Gynaecology 2.14) recommends the use of “clean, soft woollen cloth which will not shrink, bruise, irritate or compress unevenly” to wrap the baby immediately after birth and the first bath; the baby was gradually unwrapped after forty to sixty days (Graham 2013: 223-224). There is not much mentioning on how baby’s pee and poo were handled. One can assume that babies were unwrapped and changed on a fairly regular basis, perhaps twice a day (although it appears that many babies were swaddled for long periods without washing and changing). Darker descriptions of swaddling do talk about how infants stewed in their own excrement for days at a time (Shorter 1977: 170-171), leading to crying, skin irritations, ulcerations and disease. The baby who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 70 AD was likely swaddled this way – the remains were found in a carbonized wooden cradle found in the House of the Gem, Herculaneum, Italy.

Wooden cradle from Herculaneum, first century AD  © Sopraintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

As soon as the infants could sit, they were encouraged to pee and poo outside, or into a potty. There is archaeological evidence for high-chair/potty chair combinations from Archaic and Ancient Greece (sella cacatoria, Lynch and Papadopoulos 2006). The most famous example is held in the museum in the Agora, Athens, dating to the 6th century BC. An image on the inside of a red-figure kylix dated to c. 460 BC shows how the chair was used. It also shows how the mother (?) lovingly interacts with the child, looking directly at him, smiling. Sommer and Sommer (2015) recently argued that this interactive, caring way of raising children that brought developmental advantages may have even led to Athens’ cultural superiority throughout the region.

Baby on high-chair/potty, c. 460 BC  © Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels

Any archaeological evidence for practically handling baby’s pee and poo in European prehistory is scarce. We know that newborn babies were brought into the salt mines of Hallstatt, as evidenced by a fur cap that only fits newborns (Pany et al. 2010). From the same site, leaves of petasites hybridus, a plant used in Traditional European Medicine for its antiseptic properties, were recovered. It is likely that the leaves were used as toilet paper – perhaps also as wipes for cleaning infants.

There are, however, other options. China is famous for its open-crotch trousers that are worn by toddlers, designed to allow the infants to urinate and defecate without undressing them. Babies are held by the parents a bowl, toilette or appropriate outside place; toddlers can simply squat and the parents clean after them (or not). This eliminates the use of nappies/diapers, and has recently caught on to a limited degree in the western world. Notably, boy and girl infants and toddlers were dressed in lose garments and skirts for much of European history, perhaps for the same reason – that it is easier to go whenever needed.

Elimination communication is a term for an ancient practice that has recently been re-introduced into the western world by copying from non-industrialised societies. This technique seems particularly useful in hotter climates, where there is not much clothing to remove. It capitalises on the principle that babies tend to empty their bladder when held in a squat position. If the caregivers – usually the mothers – hold the baby close at all times, they can use timing, intuition, as well as baby’s signals and cues to understand when the baby has to go. The baby is then encouraged to urinate and defecate in an appropriate place, sometimes accompanied with a specific sound the baby learns and reacts to.

Nappies (diapers) are not the only answers to the universal problem of baby pee and poo. Throughout (pre-) history, people came up with more and less ingenious solutions to the problem, solutions that likely had effects on infant health, survival and development. Almost certainly, prehistoric people were less squeamish than we are today, and whether the connection between cleanliness and health was understood is unclear. Regardless of which technique is and was used, the most important factor is certainly to keep baby happy – whatever this implies.

Graham, E.-J. 2013. The making of infants in Hellenistic and early Roman Italy: a votive perspective. World Archaeology 45(2): 215-231.

Lynch, K. M., and J. K. Papadopoulos. 2006. Sella Cacatoria: A Study of the Potty in Archaic and Classical Athens. Hesperia 75(1): 1-32.

Pany-Kucera, D., H. Reschreiter, and A. Kern. 2010. Auf den Kopf gestellt? Überlegungen zu Kinderarbeit und Transport im prähistorischen Salzbergwerk Hallstatt. Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien 140: 39-68.

Shorter, E. 1977. The Making of the Modern Family. New York: Basic Books.

Sommer, M., and D. Sommer. 2015. Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.