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Researchers uncover evidence of Mediterranean prehistoric dairying

A recently published study part supported by the EU-funded NEOMILK project has outlined widespread evidence of prehistoric milk production in southern Europe.

Specifically, the new study, published in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America’ has shown that humans have been utilising milk and dairy products across the northern Mediterranean region from the onset of agriculture – some 9 000 years ago. The study combined evidence of the presence of milk and carcass fats in more than 500 pottery vessels together with an examination of the ages at death of domesticated animals excavated from 82 sites dating from the seventh to fifth millennia BC. The importance of meat and dairy production in the Neolithic Mediterranean area has remained a topic of debate amongst scientists and archaeologists, with previous research indicating that the attraction for milk may have been a driving force for the domestication of cud-chewing animals, such as cows, sheep and goats. The findings from the NEOMILK (The Milking Revolution in Temperate Neolithic Europe) research show varying intensities of dairying and non-dairying activities in the northern Mediterranean, with the slaughter profiles of the animals mirroring the fats detected in cooking pots. ‘At the onset of food production in the northern Mediterranean region, milk was an important resource to these early farming communities,’ commented Dr Cynthianne Spiteri, one of the lead authors of the study. ‘It is likely to have played an important role in providing a nourishing and storable food product which was able to sustain early farmers, and consequently, the spread of farming in the western Mediterranean.’ Her colleague, Dr Mélanie Roffet-Salque additionally outlined how the work leading to these results integrated for the first time the findings of analyses of lipid fats extracted from hundreds of cooking pots with the reconstruction of the actual herds at tens of sites, based on the remains of sheep, goats and cattle. ‘Our earlier work had demonstrated that milk use was highly regionalised in the Near East in the seventh millennium BC, and this new disciplinary study further emphasises the existence of diverse use of animal products in the northern Mediterranean Neolithic,’ added Professor Richard Evershed, from the University of Bristol, and also the Principal Investigator of the NEOMILK project. ‘Dairying was clearly practiced both in the east and west of the region, but it is still surprisingly barely detectable in northern Greece, where the lipids from pots and the animal bones tell the same story: meat production was the main activity, not dairying.’ One of the reasons why the findings are particularly relevant is the fact that much of the modern population in this region is lactose intolerant and cannot digest milk. The research team believes that this was also true in the early Neolithic period, although this is still to be confirmed through the genetic testing of ancient skeletons. However, despite this deficiency, the team’s research has shown that Neolithic populations in the region certainly exploited milk because they have found the organic remnants in the pots they were using. ‘What is particularly intriguing is that lactose intolerance was clearly no barrier to milk use,’ said Dr Roffet-Salque. ‘The major question that still remains is how the milk was being processed to make it palatable to these early Neolithic farmers.’ For more information, please see: project website


United Kingdom

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