Stone Age Milk Use Began 2,000 Years Earlier

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.

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