By DAILY MAIL REPORTER
PUBLISHED: 04:04 EST, 21 June 2012 | UPDATED: 04:04 EST, 21 June 2012
Prehistoric farmers were keeping cows for their milk seven millenia ago in what is now the Sahara desert, researchers say
British scientists have found microscopic stains of dairy products on cooking pots from Libya dating back to the fifth millennium BC.
Chemical analysis of the pottery artefacts suggests Africans were dairy farming during a time when the region was humid and ‘green’.
The findings published in Nature reveal milk was an important part of their diet, in spite of lactose intolerance which made it difficult for early man to digest the sugar in dairy food.
In northern Africa the domestication of cattle, sheep and goats emerged long before plants were used as crops.
The importance of cattle in the lives of ancient humans in this region thousands of years ago is reflected in the extensive rock paintings, which contain numerous scenes depicting cattle and even milking.
But reliable dates for this art are hard to ascertain, and little direct evidence exists to discern whether dairying was widely practised.
Professor Richard Evershed, of the University of Bristol, and colleagues have previously identified a technique based on the carbon compositions of milk fatty acids to accurately date early dairying practices in Europe and Asia.
Using the same method, they uncovered evidence for the processing of dairy products in the pots from the Libyan desert.
Prof Evershed said: ‘The finding of dairy fat residues in pottery is consistent with the processing of dairy products, suggesting how these people could have consumed milk products in spite of lactose intolerance.’
The pots were very porous and during cooking dairy fats floated to the surface of the water and were absorbed into the clay.
‘Today, it seems impossible that cattle could survive in such a hostile environment as the arid desert land of the Sahara, but this region enjoyed vastly more favourable climatic and environmental conditions during the Holocene African Humid Period’
By testing for the types of carbon atoms that exist in different fats they can tell if they came from milk or the flesh of animals.
Prof Evershed said: ‘The remarkable rock art found widely across the region depicts cattle herding among early Saharan pastoral groups, and includes rare scenes of milking; however, these images can rarely be reliably dated.
‘Although the faunal evidence provides further confirmation of the importance of cattle and other domesticates, the scarcity of cattle bones makes it impossible to ascertain herd structures via kill-off patterns, thereby precluding interpretations of whether dairying was practiced.’
He added: ‘Today, it seems impossible that cattle could survive in such a hostile environment as the arid desert land of the Sahara, but this region enjoyed vastly more favourable climatic and environmental conditions during the Holocene African Humid Period, which began around 10,000 years ago.
‘Here, faunal evidence demonstrates that by the early sixth millennium BC, cattle, sheep and goats were found together across the savannas of what is now the Sahara.
‘This suggests that the inception of dairying practices in North Africa and an early and independent “secondary products” economy seems plausible given what we now know of the first appearance of milking in the Near East.’
From the earliest days of human evolution, the relationship between man and beast has been close. Initially, animals were hunted for their flesh which became a vital source of energy.
As cultures became more complex, animals were domesticated and at some time in the past, humans began to exploit them for their milk.
In 2008 the same team published research showing the dairy industry dates back at least nine thousand years.
They studied 2,200 pottery vessels and found the oldest evidence of processing milk into butter, yoghurt and other products in north-west Turkey.
There would have been important advantages over drinking it including a means of storing surplus milk as products such as cheese and ghee, making them available throughout the year, and providing a solution for any problems of lactose intolerance. Most lactose intolerant people have fewer problems with consuming processed milk products.
In Britain, there is direct evidence of the use of milk in pottery that dates back to the fourth millennium BC, when farming first arrived in Britain around six millennia ago.