More than 7,000 years ago ancient Britons were among the first to start farming cows for their milk, a study of pottery fragments has revealed.
Scientists from the University of York tracked the shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to early farming in prehistoric Europe over about 1,500 years. The York team examined the molecular remains of food left in pottery that was used by farmers who settled along the Atlantic coast of Europe 7,000 years ago.
Dairy farming in Europe started on the Southern Atlantic coast – now Spain and Portugal – but it didn’t really take off until it reached what is now Britain and Ireland.
About 80 per cent of the pottery fragments found along the part of the Atlantic coast that is now Britain and Ireland contained dairy products.
According to the author of the paper published in Nature journal
‘The dairy products frequency increased as farming was progressively introduced along a northerly latitudinal gradient. This finding implies that early farming communities needed time to adapt their economic practices before expanding into more northerly areas.’
Prehistoric farmers colonising Northern areas with harsher climates may have had a greater need for the nutritional benefits of milk. This would have included vitamin D and fat.
The latitudinal differences in the scale of dairy production might also be important for understanding the evolution of adult lactase persistence across Europe.
The genetic change that allows today adults to digest the lactose in milk is at much higher frequency in Northwestern Europeans than their southern counterparts.
The research team examined organic residues preserved in pottery from sites situated between Portugal and Normandy as well as in the Western Baltic.
‘We deduce that intensive dairying is closely linked with cattle-based economies, while sheep and goats were exploited for both their meat and milk, at least in the initial phases of the Neolithic,’ researchers wrote.
‘A similar association between cattle and dairying has been reported for the Early Neolithic of South-eastern Europe and the Near East and may have been important for the initial expansion of farming beyond the Mediterranean climate zone.’
They found surprisingly very little evidence for marine foods in pottery even from sites located close to the Atlantic shoreline. Though people in this area had plenty of opportunities for fishing and shellfish gathering.
‘An exception was present in the Western Baltic where dairy foods and marine foods were both prepared in pottery,’ the team wrote.
The authors found that as the ‘Neolithic’ – that is the arrival of farming and settlement – arrived at different regions along the Atlantic coast there were different responses.
This was linked to different economic and cultural traditions of the farmers who migrated to these new territories and the environment they moved into.
eg- in higher latitudes with colder temperatures and more extreme conditions, there was up to a 500-year delay at the start of the Neolithic. This is particularly evident in dairy products – the ‘The frequency of dairy versus other terrestrial animal fats in pottery seems to be strongly influenced by latitude.’
Even in Britain and Ireland, where Early Neolithic sites in the south and the north have similar dates, dairy fats were more frequent at higher latitude sites.
This ‘perhaps highlighting the importance of local environmental conditions or nutritional requirements’.
Although Early Neolithic populations in Western Europe were largely lactose intolerant, variation in the scale of dairying observed across the Atlantic may have created a change towards more lactose tolerance in northern parts.
Lead author Dr. Miriam Cubas, said: “This surprising discovery could mean that many prehistoric farmers shunned marine foods in favour of dairy, but perhaps fish and shellfish were simply processed in other ways.’
“Our study is one of the largest regional comparisons of early pottery use,’ she said.
‘It has shed new light on the spread of early farming across Atlantic Europe and showed that there was a huge variety in the way early farmers lived.
‘These results help us to gain more of an insight into the lives of people living during this process of momentous change in culture and lifestyle – from hunter-gatherer to farming.