Cow milk was an important part of the diet of people living 7,000 years ago in Saharan Africa, a new study has found.
Saharan cave art has hinted at the widespread domestication and milking of cattle in the region in prehistoric times, but no direct evidence had been found. Cave art is also difficult to reliably date.
The new research, published in Nature on June 20, has provided both chemical evidence and more accurate dates for the emergence of dairy farming in Africa.
In the study, British and Italian scientists analyzed the remains of food absorbed into fragments of unglazed pottery found in the Takarkori rock shelter in the Tadrart Acacus Mountains of Libya.
Preserved within the pot fragments they found molecules of animal fats and plant oils. Using a technique based on carbon isotopes, the scientists were able to identify fats specific to milk in about half of the 29 fragments analyzed.
“Because of the way ruminant animals (cows, sheep, and goats) synthesize their food sources differently within their bodies, we can tell whether the fats come from the meat or the milk,” explained study lead author Julie Dunne of the U.K.’s University of Bristol in an email.
Study co-author Richard Evershed and colleagues had previously used the same analysis technique on other archaeological sites in Europe and the Near East.
“The oldest evidence for dairying is, as already known, in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 B.C.,” Dunne said. “The adoption of dairying practices then spread across Europe. From this study we now know that these ancient people also moved southward into north Africa, with their cattle, where we find their traces dating back 7,000 years.”
A nomadic lifestyle centered on the domestication of cattle, sheep, and goats is thought to have existed much earlier than the domestication of plants or the establishment of settled farming communities.
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“We already know how important dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt, and butter, which can be repeatedly extracted from an animal throughout its lifetime, were to the people of Neolithic Europe, so it’s exciting to find proof that they were also significant in the lives of the prehistoric people of Africa,” said Dunne in a press release