Stone Age Milk Use Began 2,000 Years Earlier

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"They're definitely doing fairly intensive processing [for] that fat [to get] into the pot wall. It's showing up in a huge proportion of the pottery." Joachim Burger of the Institute of Archaeology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, said the latest findings are highly significant.

While other recent research based on bone remains of slaughtered livestock suggests even earlier use of cows for dairy products, the new evidence is less open to doubt, he said.

"We can now spot the very probable origin of dairying in the most western part of Asia," Burger said.

Key Staple

Burger's own research indicates that raw milk wasn't part of the late Stone Age diet, since adults were uniformly lactose intolerant as recently as 7,000 years ago.

However an inability to drink milk wasn't necessarily a barrier to earlier dairy consumption, as lactose breaks down during processing, Burger said.

Even so, raw milk probably wasn't consumed until some 1,000 to 2,000 years later, he said.

By then dairy farming had spread into Europe, where it met a genetic mutation that allowed humans to digest lactose into adulthood, he added.

"There are some hunter-gatherers running around in central Europe not knowing they have this gene, and as soon as the dairy culture meets these people, it becomes the subject of natural selection and the whole thing explodes."

Lead study author Evershed said dairy production would have been a key driver in human civilization: It provided a reliable, year-round source of nourishment and allowed a key staple to be produced on a large scale.

In lactose-tolerant central and northern Europe, dairy farming became "the basis of our culture," according to Burger of Mainz. Dairy products gave lactose-tolerant people, he said, a major advantage over fellow Europeans.

"Without milk," he said, "everything would have been different. Thirty to 40 per cent of the middle to northern European gene pool would have been different, different people would have taken over the continent, and so on."

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