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The Milking Revolution in Temperate Neolithic Europe

Final Report Summary - NEOMILK (The Milking Revolution in Temperate Neolithic Europe)

The introduction and spread of ruminant animal-based agriculture by early Neolithic farmers had fundamental implications for shaping the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Europe, completely transforming prehistoric European culture, biology and economy, in ways that underlie modern life. Critically, these changes underpinned dissemination of dairy economies globally, and the evolution of Lactase Persistence (LP) in Europeans. The multi-billion Euro dairy economy is a direct consequence of human-induced biological reformulations made in this critical phase of European prehistory. Hence, our research focussed on one of the most profound dimensions of the lives of prehistoric farming communities, namely the emergent role of domesticated animals in their evolving subsistence economies and cultures, particularly factors that underlie cattle becoming the primary domesticate for dairy production amongst temperate European Neolithic farmers.

A majority priority of the project was the mapping of milk use across Europe to test hypotheses concerning the spatio-temporal spread of dairying and LP as part of the Neolithisation process. This was done by investigating animal fats preserved in archaeological pottery amongst which milk fats can identified using a fatty acid-based carbon isotope proxy developed by Evershed and co-workers. More than 5000 pottery vessels were analysed during the project and combined with ca. 5000 vessels already published, provided an unparalleled database of milk residue occurrences. This ground-breaking work showed milk use was very widespread in European prehistory, broadly congruous with the Neolithic expansion. In some regions there was chronological continuity in milk use, whilst in others milk use seemed more ephemeral, suggesting a degree of experimentation occurred. High-precision 14C dates for the emergence of milk use in key regions were determined using a new compound-specific fatty acid-based dating method developed during the project.

The finding of extensive milk use at a time when people were supposed to be lactase non persistent prompted investigations of published aDNA sequences for the most common LP-associated gene variant (-13.910*T). The allele was absent or present at very low frequencies in Neolithic farmers, only increasing significantly in later prehistory. To address the question “How could LNP people in Neolithic Europe be using milk in adulthood without it making them ill?” we interrogated the UK Biobank and found >90% of individuals lacking the LP genetic variant drink milk regularly without significant negative health effects. These findings offer new perspectives on milk use by prehistoric farmers, especially in relation to the evolution of LP.

Wider aspects animal exploitation were explored using animal bones. Detailed work on fracture/fragmentation characteristics in LBK assemblages constitute the most comprehensive study of bone fat and marrow processing ever undertaken. The findings suggest bone fat processing was not practiced intensively on early farming sites, contrasting with earlier hunter-gatherer food procurement practices. This likely reflected easy access of early farmers to domesticated crops and animals, obviating the need for intensive fat exploitation. Significantly, fat exploitation was lower where milk-producing ruminant animal (cattle, sheep and goats) abundances were highest, implying introduction of dairy products reduced the emphasis on bone fat as a dietary resource.

State-of-the-art chemical/isotopic analyses of zooarchaeological remains provided a range of new insights into prehistoric animal management. Critically, cattle were shown to be the primary dairy animal in the Central and Northern early Neolithic LBK communities. New stable isotopic methods revealed high-resolution dietary signals from ruminant tooth enamel, dentine and bone collagen indicative of prehistoric husbandry, foddering and land-use. A new compound-specific nitrogen isotope approach based on dentine amino acids provided the earliest evidence for the use of leafy hay during winter, while enamel oxygen isotopes revealed management of the birth season so milk was available to prehistoric farmers in the winter months.