New research shows dairy farms existed more than 7,000 years ago in the Sahara desert. According to an analysis of pottery shards from the Takarkori rock shelter, early herders weren’t just milking their livestock, but they also processed the milk into products like yogurt, cheese and butter.
Julie Dunne, study author and an archaeological scientist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom told LiveScience, “What we’re really beginning to know is that cattle were incredibly significant to early peoples. They gave a remarkably calorific source of food and allowed populations to expand dramatically. Milk and dairying seem to be so significant in human development, remarkably so. The most exciting thing about this is that milk is one of the only foodstuffs that gives us carbohydrates, protein and fat. So it was incredibly beneficial for prehistoric people to use milk.”
Researchers analyzed residue from 81 pieces of pottery from the Sahara desert in Libya. The deserts dry condition kept the residue well-preserved and researchers were able to identify animal fats that prove ancient settlers farmed not only cow, but goats and sheep too.
Back 7,000 years, Africans hadn’t developed the genetic mutations that allowed them to digest the milk. That’s why they were likely to make cheese and yogurt instead, to make the dairy product more digestible. “Settling down helped drive the evolution of that trait,” Dunne said.
Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, UK, who led the study said, “They could have consumed milk but it might have made them a little poorly. Perhaps they were processing the milk to lower the lactose content.”
Dunne added, “These results also provide a background for our understanding of the evolution of the lactose persistence gene which seems to have arisen once prehistoric people started consuming milk products. You’re really seeing evolution in action over a very short timescale, just 1,000 to 2,000 years.”
Researchers now plan to analyze pottery samples from more northern African dwellings. The goal is to get a better picture of how dairy and cows spread among the people of the continent, Dunne said.