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Dairy Detectives

July 5, 2012

Traces of milk fat in pottery confirm that prehistoric North Africans practiced dairy farming.



Dairy detectives.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Traces of 7,000-year-old dairy milk have been recovered from North African pottery.  Archaeological chemist Julie Dunne of the University of Bristol in England was on the research team.  She says that circumstantial evidence, like cave paintings, has long suggested that prehistoric North Africans milked cattle.  For proof, her team studied residues of animal fat found in the pottery.

JULIE DUNNE (University of Bristol):

And because of the differences in the biophysiology of the animals, we can identify whether the fats that we find in the pot actually come from either the dairy fats of the animal, or come from the flesh of the animal.

In this case, over half were milk fats, which suggests that dairying played a big role in that culture.  The findings add to our knowledge not only of prehistoric civilizations, but of the evolution of milk-tolerant genes, found mainly in people of European or Central African descent. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Frescoes like this one, from the Libyan Sahara, suggest cattle were domesticated there at least 7,000 years ago. Now, chemical evidence confirms that they were milked for dairy products.(Credit: Image by Roberto Ceccacci, © The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara, Sapienza University of Rome)