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Stone Age Milk Use Began 2,000 Years Earlier

James Owen
for National Geographic News
August 6, 2008
 
Prehistoric humans consumed milk at least 8,500 years ago—up to 2,000 years earlier than previously thought—new discoveries of the the earliest known milk containers suggest.

The find shows that the culinary breakthrough of using animal milk was first developed by cow herders in northwest Turkey. The first milk users, though, are not thought to have been milk drinkers—but butter, yogurt, or cheese eaters.

"It's the earliest direct evidence for milk use anywhere," said lead study author Richard Evershed, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom.

Evershed and his team analyzed more than 2,200 ceramic vessels from late Stone Age sites across Turkey, southeastern Europe, and the Middle East.

Evidence for milk fats—as opposed to meat fats—showed up clearly on unglazed pots dating back to 6500 B.C. from the Sea of Marmara region. Ancient animal bones at the site also revealed the dairy livestock used there were cattle, rather than goats or sheep.

"It's where you start to see milk really being used," Evershed said. "As you go to other locations, the cattle evidence is much weaker, and the milk residues also show up much more weakly."

The new findings will be reported tomorrow in the journal Nature.

Right Conditions

Previously, experts argued that sheep and goats kick-started dairy production, Evershed said.

"This [study] shows that if you get into serious milk consumption, where you're using pottery and preparing your milk, it's really related to cattle suddenly coming onstream," he said.

Northwest Turkey probably provided the right environmental conditions for cattle herding, having "higher rainfall and greener grazing" than other regions where farming began, the study team wrote. The development of pottery and dairy products such as butter, yogurt, and cheese seem to go hand in hand, Evershed said.

"Pots become a very convenient medium for processing milk [into butter, yogurt, or cheese]," he said.

"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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