Milking Cows In Ancient Times
June 21, 2012

Milking Cows In Ancient Times

Brett Smith for

New evidence points to the existence of prehistoric dairies existing almost 7,000 years ago in the modern day Sahara Desert.

British scientists said they have found proof of dairy processing or cooking in the form of microscopic dairy fats stained on clay pots from Libya dating back to the fifth millennium BC, according to a report published in Nature.

“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,” study co-author Richard Evershed, of the University of Bristol told the Daily Mail.

In 2008, the same research team published research showing the earliest known use of dairy techniques dates back at least nine thousand years to northwest Turkey. That study analyzed 2,200 pottery vessels and found the evidence of prehistoric processing of milk into butter and other products.

The latest findings also give a more detailed understanding of the environment in Neolithic Northern Africa. About 10,000 years ago, the Sahara Desert was a more hospitable place with more rainfall and plant life. Early hunter-gatherers lived a semi-sedentary life, used simple pottery, hunted wild game, and collected wild grains. Between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago, the region began the transition to an arid desert, forcing the people living there to switch to a more nomadic way of life, as the record of fossilized cattle bones and rock paintings suggests.

"While the remarkable rock art of Saharan Africa contains many representations of cattle — including, in a few cases, depictions of the actual milking of a cow — it can rarely be reliably dated,” Evershed said in a prepared statement.

“Also, the scarcity of cattle bones in archaeological sites makes it impossible to ascertain herd structures, thereby preventing interpretations of whether dairying was practiced.”

Processing the animal milk into other products would have substantial advantages over simply drinking it, including a means of storing surplus milk as products such as cheese. This would also make dairy products available throughout the year.

The new study gives a window into the development of humans ability to process lactose. It is believed that early man was lactose intolerant, but developed the ability to break down the sugar within the past few thousand years.

"As well as identifying the early adoption of dairying practices in Saharan Africa, these results also provide a background for our understanding of the evolution of the lactase persistence gene which seems to have arisen once prehistoric people started consuming milk products,” said co-author Julie Dunne, a PhD student in Bristol's School of Chemistry.

"The gene is found in Europeans and across some Central African groups, thus supporting arguments for the movement of people, together with their cattle, from the Near East into eastern African in the early to middle Holocene, around 8,000 years ago," she added.

Most mammals become lactose intolerant after weaning, due to a decrease in the production of lactase, the enzyme that catalyzes the sugar. While most human populations have some degree of developed lactase persistence, where the production of lactase continues into adulthood-- it is estimated that 75 percent of adults worldwide show some decrease in lactase activity.