African Pottery Gives Hints of the Earliest Dairy Farmers

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cheese Platter, 150 x 100 (Chris Buecheler/flickr)

When did earliest humans make cheese? Butter? Yogurt? New archeological findings suggest humans were in fact processing milk 7,000 years ago, as researchers examining pottery from from a site in Libya recently discovered traces of dairy fats on the earthenware. Julie Dunne is an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in England and the study’s first author.

Dunne's team discovered the traces of animal fats using organic residue analysis and stable carbon isotope analysis. The findings suggests that the area's inhabitants were processing dairy products "long before the first evidence for domesticated plants or settled village farming communities." By processing milk into yogurt, cheese, or butter, the people were able to make a smoother transition to lactose tolerance.

The Sahara Desert of Africa is known as one of the driest, most forbidding environments in the world, but eight or nine thousand years ago the land was dotted with lakes, rivers, and an abundance of flora and fauna. A National Geographic expedition in October 2000 discovered numerous human skeletons, along with hippopotamus, crocodile, and elephant remains — four species that all require a great deal of water to survive.

The archaeologist suggests that the development of dairy technology and processing was one of the catalysts that caused a dramatic change in lifestyle for the early inhabitants of the prehistoric Green Sahara. "Milk's one of the only things that gives us carbs, proteins, and fats," Dunne says. "We're almost beginning to think that it might be one of the things that drove people to move from being hunter-gatherers into a settled, farming sort of lifestyle."

The usage of dairy products also suggests a change in human genetics. It's a question of evolution in action. In Europe, Dunne says, the gene that allows for lactose tolerance arose around one to two thousand years after people had begun to process dairy products.

"That enables humans to utilize this incredibly advantageous product," the archaeologist says. "It's very exciting to find that in Africa."


Julie Dunne

Produced by:

Robert Balint and Mythili Rao

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