Milk consumption started 7,000 years ago

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People lived on milk 7,000 years ago

Dairy products made from sheep's, cow's and goat's milk are an integral part of nutrition in many cultures today. British researchers from the University of Bristol have used clay shards to investigate when milk from domesticated animals has been used for nutrition. The result is surprising: yoghurt was on the menu in North Africa some 7,000 years ago. The analysis of pottery shards from the region of the northern Sahara showed that dairy products had been consumed as early as 5,200 BC, the researchers led by Julie Dunne and Richard P. Evershed from the University of Bristol in the journal "Nature". According to the researchers, indications for the early extraction and processing of sheep, cow and goat milk had already resulted from cave paintings that show cattle with full udders and "even pictures of people milking cows". However, these cave paintings have not yet been clearly dated.

Clay shards as evidence of prehistoric milk consumption Based on the analysis of the clay shards from the Sahara region in southern Libya, the British scientists were now able to make a relatively precise statement about the start of milk consumption in North Africa. Julie Dunne and Richard Evershed, together with American, Italian and South African colleagues, examined 81 pieces of pottery that were found in the Libyan Sahara region. The region used to be a lush landscape that favored the keeping of cows, goats and sheep, the scientists explained. The fragments found date from the period 8,100 to 2,600 BC. "With the help of molecular and isotope analyzes", the researchers were able to determine which fats contained the food of the population at that time. The proven fats in turn made it possible to draw conclusions about the composition of the food.

Residues of animal fats indicate early milk consumption From around 5,200 BC, residues of certain animal fats were found on the pottery shards, which suggest that sheep, goat and cow's milk are beginning to be consumed, Dunne and Evershed report. In the shards on which isotopes of fats were found, "at least half of the fats found came from dairy products," according to the British scientists. According to this, the people of North Africa started doing dairy cattle farming and processing the nutritious milk around 7,000 years ago. These results confirm the importance of dairy products for prehistoric people in Africa and “provide an evolutionary context for the emergence of lactase persistence in Africa,” write Julie Dunne and Richard P. Evershed. Lactase persistence enables people to consume fresh milk without indigestion such as abdominal pain, bloating or diarrhea. Enough lactase (digestive enzyme) is still produced in adulthood to break down milk sugar (lactose). However, not all people have this property. For example, up to 90 percent of the population in East Asia is lactose intolerant, which means that their digestive system cannot break down milk sugar to the required extent.

Milk difficult to digest for many people The prehistoric people in North Africa also believe that the consumption of fresh milk due to the lack of lactase enzyme has caused considerable digestive problems, the British researchers write. People were therefore dependent on processing the milk, because further processing reduces the lactose content of the milk products. Prehistoric people were probably able to consume the milk as yogurt without major complaints. Over the millennia, mutations have presumably developed in the populations that used the dairy industry, which went hand in hand with lactase persistence and made it possible for the population to enjoy milk without complaints. For the prehistoric people in North Africa, this milk tolerance was, according to the researchers, a decisive evolutionary advantage, since they were also able to meet their fluid needs in this way. (fp)

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