Evidence of Dairy Farmers from Prehistoric Libya

A team of international researchers have published a paper in the scientific journal “Nature” detailing the evidence suggesting that humans were domesticating cattle and using their milk as early as seven thousand years ago.  The scientists, led by researchers from the University of Bristol (United Kingdom), analysed fatty acids that had been extracted from fragments of unglazed pottery from an archaeological dig site in Libya.  The study showed that dairy fats were processed in the containers.

Prehistoric Libya

This research is strong evidence that dairying practices were being carried out by Neolithic people living in the Saharan area of Africa as early as the fifth millennium B.C.  Ten thousand years ago, the Sahara Desert area was a lush paradise with abundant game.  Early hunter-gatherer peoples living in the area had a semi-sedentary lifestyle, making pottery, hunting wild animals and collecting wild plants such as cereals.  As the area became more arid, in the period of time between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago the inhabitants of the region adopted a more nomadic way of life, as indicated by the discovery of many cattle bones in cave deposits and by sites of Neolithic camps.

Domesticated animals were clearly significant to these people: the engraved and painted rock art found widely across the region includes many vivid representations of animals, particularly cattle.  However, no direct proof that these cattle were milked existed – until this new research.

Researchers at the Organic Geochemistry Unit in Bristol’s School of Chemistry, with colleagues at Sapienza, University of Rome, (Italy) studied unglazed pottery dating from around 7,000 years ago, found at the Takarkori rock shelter in the Tadrart Acacus Mountains, Libya.

Using lipid biomarker and stable carbon isotope analysis, they examined preserved fatty acids held within the fabric of the pottery and found that half of the vessels had been used for processing dairy fats.  This confirms for the first time the early presence of domesticated cattle in the region and the importance of milk to its prehistoric pastoral people.

Ancient Dairy Farmers

One of the authors of the paper, PhD student at Bristol’s School of Chemistry, Julie Dunne commented:

“We already know how important dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter, which can be repeatedly extracted from an animal throughout its lifetime, were to the people of Neolithic Europe, so it’s exciting to find proof that they were also significant in the lives of the prehistoric people of Africa.”

The student went on to add:

“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.”

Not all Neolithic or indeed Bronze Age people were lactose tolerant, able to consume dairy products.  A new analysis of the genome of “Oetzi” – The Iceman, a frozen 5,300 year-old mummy found in the Alps suggests that this particular European was lactose intolerant.

To read more about this new genetic study of the ice mummy: “Oetzi” – The Iceman – New Genome Study Reveals More Secrets.

Commenting on the presence or absence of a lactose tolerant gene within early human populations a spokesperson for the research team stated:

“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.”

Explaining the problems that had been encountered when trying to accurately calculate when dairying was first practiced, Co-author Professor Richard Evershed (Bristol University’s School of Chemistry) added:

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

Isotope Analysis

However, molecular and isotopic analysis of absorbed food residues in pottery is a reliable way to investigate the diet of and agricultural practices of early humans.  Scientists have used similar methods to determine the adoption of other farming methods in the Near East and their spread westwards into Europe.

It seems that as far back as seven thousand years ago, in the area that was to become the country of Libya, some people were milking cows.  It is not sure whether this work would have been carried out by the menfolk or left to the women.  The cave art that depicts milking scenes does not provide strong evidence either way.

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