Early Milking in the Sahara

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Photo: Roberto Ceccacci, @ The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara, Sapienza University of Rome

A research team led by the University of Bristol has found proof that dairy farming was practised in Saharan Africa 7,000 years ago.

Chemical and isotopic analysis of fatty acids taken from unglazed Libyan pottery dated to the 5th millennium BC, revealed that dairy fats were processed inside the vessels. Evidence for domesticated cattle in this region had previously been indicated by faunal remains found in rock-shelters and river camps – most strikingly in the form of rock art (see illustration) some of which even depicts the milking of cattle. However, the art cannot provide a reliable date; making the fatty acids recovered from the pottery the earliest direct evidence for cattle used for milk in this region.

Julie Dunne, of Bristol University and one of the authors of the paper which featured in Nature, told CWA: ‘These prehistoric people moved from being fairly settled hunter- gatherer-fishers to living a more nomadic, pastoral way of life, probably to exploit the best grazing conditions for their cattle. This differs from the Neolithic of Eurasia and Europe, where people settle down into a farming way of life, domesticating plants and animals.’

While cattle in Africa were exploited for their milk almost immediately, in Europe and Eurasia people waited about 1,000 years after adopting a sedentary agricultural lifestyle before they used domesticates for secondary products such as milk, wool, and traction.

Milk has a high nutritional value, providing protein, fats, and carbohydrates, but humans had to evolve to be able to digest lactose beyond infancy (see CWA 39). Julie adds ‘This really is a marvellous example of natural selection in action, over a very short timescale, probably just 1,000 to 2,000 years.’


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