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Dairy production in early farming communities of the northern Mediterranean

Posted on 15 November 2016

Lipid residue analysis of pottery vessels suggests diverse subsistence strategies in Neolithic communities

The importance of milk and dairy products in Neolithic communities in the northern basin of the Mediterranean has been highlighted in new research.

Lipid residue analysis of fat remains drom ceramic vessels was combined with osteoarchaeological age-at-death analysis from 82 northern Mediterranean and Near Eastern sites dating from the seventh to fifth millennia BC. Milk residues found in very early Neolithic pottery from the east and west of the region contrasted with lower intensities in northern Greece, where pig bones were more common compared to other regions. This suggested that meat consumption was predominant here.

Dr Cynthianne Spiteri, who conducted the residue analysis as part of her PhD at the Department of Archaeology's BioArCh facility, said: “At the onset of food production in the northern Mediterranean region, milk was an important resource to these early farming communities.

“It is likely to have played an important role in providing a nourishing and storable food product which was able to sustain early farmers, and consequently, the spread of farming in the western Mediterranean.”

The study, a collaboration between the University of York, the University of Bristol, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, found that overall, the exploitation of milk and its by-products varied across the region, with most communities beginning to exploit dairy as domesticates were introduced between 9000 and 7000 years ago. This discovery is especially noteworthy, as the shift in human subsistence toward milk production reshaped prehistoric European culture, biology, and economy in ways that are still visible today.

Professor Oliver Craig from the University of York's Department of Archaeology said the findings were particularly relevant as much of the population in that region today can’t digest milk.

He added: “We presume this was also true back in the early Neolithic period, although this is still to be confirmed through genetic testing of ancient skeletons. Despite this deficiency, our research shows that they certainly exploited milk because we have found organic remnants in the pots they were using. This implies they were transforming milk into dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese, to remove the lactose.

“Despite dairying being a multi-billion pound global industry, we know that much of the world’s population today are still intolerant to lactose so it is very important to know at what point people in the past were exposed to it and how long they have had to adapt to it.”

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