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The introduction of dairy farming in Wales has now been dated to 3,100 BC. Source: Archivist / Adobe Stock.

Did Neolithic Dairy Farmers Try To Butter Up The Gods?


Evidence of Neolithic dairy farming has been discovered in Wales dating back over 5,000 years. These new findings are from a time when people transitioned from hunting to farming. This was a moment when new monuments were raised, and when dairy products, it seems, were believed to be conduits to the gods of the fields.  

Dairy farming developed somewhere around the beginning of the 6th millennium BC in eastern Europe, and in the 5th millennium BC in Africa. It was always “suspected” that milk-based products, like butter and yoghurt, were being produced during the 4th millennium BC in Britain. Now, the earliest evidence of dairy farming in Britain has been discovered at an ancient burial monument.

Ancient Welsh Yoghurt

A four-year long archaeological project at the Trellyffaint Neolithic monument near Newport, Pembrokeshire, in West Wales, has now placed the origins of dairy farming at 3,100 BC. This is according to the research of Professor George Nash of the University of Coimbra, in Portugal. Working with The Welsh Rock Art Organization the researchers believe their new findings represent “the oldest-known evidence of dairy farming in Wales.”

The Neolithic Dolmen at Trellyffaint (Helge Klaus Rieder / Public Domain)

The Neolithic Dolmen at Trellyffaint (Helge Klaus Rieder / Public Domain)

The site comprises standing stones and two henges (circular earthen dishes) which were built and developed around the same time as Stonehenge, between 3,000 BC and 2,000 BC. Fragments of 5,100-year-old pottery were collected from the monument and were analyzed by researcher Julie Dunne of the University of Bristol.

According to a report in the BBC the dairy fat residues sampled from the insides of the pottery were dated with a “94.5% accuracy to 3,100 BC.” These dairy fat residues “could only have originated from milk-based substances” said the researchers, and suggest that Neolithic farmers enjoyed such calorie rich foods as “butter, cheese, or more probably yoghurt.”

The Neolithic Package

Project leader Dr Nash told the BBC that it was “incredibly rare” to find any organic archaeological remains in this part of Wales because of the wearing effects of the “soil's acidity.” what is particularly valuable about these pottery fragments is that fact that they reveal dietary and lifestyle information “right on the cusp of when a new Neolithic ideology [farming] was taking hold.”

Dr Nash described this transitional era from hunting, fishing and gathering, to farming, as “the Neolithic package.”  For Nash, this includes “animal husbandry, pottery making, food procurement and different ways of burying and venerating the dead.”

But don’t try to conceptualize this package as a static moment in time, that suddenly appeared one day and prompted everyone to throw down their spears and take up farming. As Dr Nash notes “it is important to view the period as a continuum of social and ritual development.”

Pottery found on site contained dairy fat residue (BBC)

Pottery found on site contained dairy fat residue (BBC)

The principal casual factor for this transition was expanding populations. And because the dairy samples were discovered among the dead, this suggests dairy was used in ancient death rites and was probably offered to the gods.

Blessed Are The Cheesemakers  

Dr Nash said pottery fragments recovered from the site might reveal something about “the veneration of the Earth” within a ritualized landscape. The Trellyffaint Neolithic monument, like Stonehenge, was not only a backdrop for rites and rituals, but certain stones at the monument served as celestial chronometers.

75 “cupmarks” (circular holes) have been found on the surface of one single stone at this site, compared to very few others in the entirety of Wales. Believed to represent star constellations, this stone is an artifact from the early hunters in Wales.

The “cupmarks” are believed to mirror the stars (BBC)

The “cupmarks” are believed to mirror the stars (BBC)

Such hunters followed the paths of the stars, tracking animal migration paths. When these hunters eventually stopped sharpening their spears, and dropped their fishing rods and gathering baskets, this represented a change to their entire cosmogony. 

This transitioning world view is perhaps why two concentric henges were later built at Trellyffaint, to the north of the original monument. Farmers need to know less about the paths of the stars, and a lot about the two great cycles of the Sun and the Moon.

What’s more, with an agricultural lifestyle the natural spirits that were one perceived as residing in resource rich parts of the land and coastline became fused together into new gods. These gods were grand governing deities of the Earth, Sun and Moon, the three greatest determining factors of the success of agriculture. Thus, wouldn’t you too offer dairy products to Sun, Moon and Earth deities, from whence the nectar came from, to keep it flowing? I would.

Top Image: The introduction of dairy farming in Wales has now been dated to 3,100 BC. Source: Archivist / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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