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A new study of Neolithic pottery fragments has revealed ancient Britons were among the first people to farm dairy. Pictured: Cow and her calf in sunset. Source:  lassedesignen / Adobe stock

Thirsty Brits Turned to Drinking Cow’s Milk 7,000 Years Ago


Molecular food remains sampled from Neolithic pottery determines dairy farming “took hold” in what is modern-day Britain and Ireland

A new study of pottery fragments by a team of scientists led by senior author, Professor Oliver Craig, from the Department of Arhcaeology ay the University of York , has been published in the journal  Nature Communications . Not only do the finds of this research provide insights into the emergence of lactose tolerance, but it also proves ancient Britons were among the very first people to farm cows specifically for milk.

Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude

The team of scientists from the University of York tracked hunter-gatherer lifestyles in prehistoric Europe over about 1,500 years as they evolved into sedentary farming cultures. Studying the molecular remains of organic food residue discovered in Neolithic pottery fragments recovered from sites dating to 5,000 BC, located along the Southern Atlantic coast of Europe, in what is today Spain and Portugal, the researchers say their study suggests dairy farming didn't really “take off” until it reached the islands of modern-day Britain and Ireland.

An artist’s impression of prehistoric humans in Europe. (Public domain)

An artist’s impression of prehistoric humans in Europe. ( Public domain )

This claim is supported in the fact that about 80% of the Neolithic pottery samples from Britain and Ireland contained dairy products, while in ancient Portugal and Spain, diets were primarily foodstuffs made from sheep and goat milk rather than from cow’s milk. The scientists also said they observed an increase in the frequency of molecular dairy product remains as farming was “progressively introduced along a northerly latitudinal gradient,” implying early farmers required time to adapt their economic practices before expanding into more northerly areas, the authors wrote. 

Neolithic pottery fragments that were analyzed in the study. (Annabelle Cocollos / Conseil départemental du Calvados)

Neolithic pottery fragments that were analyzed in the study. (Annabelle Cocollos / Conseil départemental du Calvados )

Mapping the Lactose Latitudes

Northern prehistoric farmers endured much harsher and more changeable climates and one line of thinking is that they had an increased calorific and nutritional demands, therefore would have placed much greater value in the vitamin D and fats inherent in cow’s milk, the authors of the study suggest.

And where this study of ancient farmers is applicable today is that the latitudinal differences in dairy production might illustrate “the evolution of adult lactase persistence across Europe,” said Professor Oliver Craig. And he illustrated this point by explaining that the genetic mutation required for adults to digest the lactose in milk is at much higher frequency in Northwestern Europeans than their Southern counterparts.

Depiction of ancient diary farming. (Mannaggia / Adobe stock)

Depiction of ancient diary farming. ( Mannaggia / Adobe stock)

The new study also determines that while sheep and goats were exploited for both their meat and milk in the early part of the Neolithic revolution, intensive dairy farming was associated with the later cattle-based economies. And this is reflected in research of the Early Neolithic period in Southeastern Europe and the Near East, and the experts suggest dairy farming may have been an important causal factor for the primary expansion of farming from the Mediterranean climate zone.

Milking Was Easier Than Fishing

Despite the Atlantic coastline being heavily populated with mineral and vitamin rich fish and seafood, “surprisingly little” evidence of the consumption of marine foods was gathered from examinations of the Neolithic pottery fragments, and the scientists say this was the case even from archaeological sites located near the Atlantic shoreline, with the exception of cultures on the Western Baltic where both dairy and seafoods were prepared in pottery, the team wrote. 

Lead author, Dr. Miriam Cubas, told Nature Magazine , that this “surprising discovery” might mean that many prehistoric farmers “shunned marine foods in favor of dairy,” but he adds that perhaps fish and shellfish were simply processed in other ways, the lack of evidence in this case not serving as evidence of the avoidance of marine foods.

As Neolithic farmers sought new lands, they spread across the Atlantic coast at different times with various economic and cultural traditions. The scientists concluded that in higher latitudes where the climate was colder and more extreme, there was up to a 500 year delay in farming as groups fought and tried to adapt their southern developed farming methods to Nordic conditions. Dr. Cubas said the new results offer an insight into the lives of people who lived during what he describes as “a process of momentous change in culture and lifestyle”, from hunter-gatherers to farmers.

Top image: A new study of Neolithic pottery fragments has revealed ancient Britons were among the first people to farm dairy. Pictured: Cow and her calf in sunset. Source:  lassedesignen / 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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