A study led by the University of Bristol has discovered the first unequivocal proof of what prehistoric humans used cattle for milk about 7,000 years ago in North Africa. By analyzing fatty acids extracted from ceramics from an archaeological site in Libya, researchers have shown that milk fats were processed in such containers.
Make about 10,000 years, the Sahara was a more humid and greener place, populated by hunters and gatherers who led their lives there. However, between 7,000 and 5,000 ago, the region became more arid and the inhabitants became nomads who led a pastoral life. Domestic animals were very important to these people, as the rock art found widely throughout the area includes many living depictions of animals, particularly livestock. But nevertheless, there was no direct proof that these animals were milked until now.
Researchers from the Organic Geochemistry Unit of the Bristol School of Chemistry, together with their colleagues from Sapienza, University of Rome, studied pottery dating back 7,000 years and found in the Takarkori shelter in Libya. Using lipid biomarkers and stable carbon isotope analysis, they examined the fatty acids that are still preserved in ceramic tissue and found that half of the containers had been used for milk fat processing. This confirms for the first time the presence of domesticated cattle in the region and highlights the importance of milk in the society of prehistoric shepherds.
Julie Dunne, a doctoral student at the Bristol School of Chemistry and one of the study's authors, explains: “We already know how important dairy products were to the people of Neolithic Europe, so it is exciting to find proof that they were also significant in the lives of prehistoric men in Africa. These results also provide a basis for our understanding of the evolution of the lactase persistence gene, which appears to have arisen once prehistoric people began consuming dairy products.”.
The gene mentioned by the researcher is found in the genetic tree of Europeans and some groups in Central Africa, which supports the theory that the inhabitants of the area migrated, along with cattle, from the Middle East to East Africa 8,000 years ago.
Study co-author and professor at the Bristol School of Chemistry Richard Evershed adds: “Although rock art in North Africa contains many depictions of cattle, including in some cases depictions of the milking of a real cow, it can rarely be reliably dated. Molecular and isotopic analysis of food residues absorbed by pottery is an excellent way to investigate the diet of primitive peoples.”.
Passionate about History, he has a degree in Journalism and Audiovisual Communication. Since he was a child he loved history and ended up exploring the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries above all.