Got Milk? Humans Did, Almost 9,000 Years Ago

By Andrew Moseman | August 7, 2008 3:34 pm

potsMilk—it does a body good, and apparently it’s been doing so for longer than we thought. A new study led by Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol in England says that humans had discovered dairy products by the 6,000s B.C., two millennia earlier than scientists had previously believed.

Evershed and his team found milk residue in pottery dating back to 6,500 B.C., found in areas of Turkey and the Balkans. “Cattle, sheep and goats were familiar farm animals by the eighth millennium BC, but until now, the first clear evidence for milk use was the late fifth millennium,” says the team [The Telegraph].

Milk fats are not water-soluble, so their traces can be identified in pottery even if the vessels have been buried in the ground for a few thousand years. The residues don’t indicate the presence of milk itself, as those would decay away very quickly, but instead suggest more processed dairy substances, such as butter, yogurt, ghee (or clarified butter), and possibly cheese [LiveScience].

Evershed said most the 2,200 pots his team studied showed milk fat in their walls, which supports the processing idea. That finding also gets the researchers around a potential problem in their study—that adults were uniformly lactose intolerant as recently as 7,000 years ago. However an inability to drink milk wasn’t necessarily a barrier to earlier dairy consumption, as lactose breaks down during processing [National Geographic]. So as long as these ancient people ate butter, cheese, or yogurt, their lactose intolerance made no difference.

Image: Richard Evershed

MORE ABOUT: agriculture, milk
  • http://NA shaun

    Maybe someone down the line re-used the pottery? just a thought

  • Clan:Rewired

    Pottery being handed down for thousands of years without breaking? mmmmm Think again?

  • Interrobang

    I hate to break it to you, but butter is full of lactose. There’s no real “processing” of the milk involved with making butter, at least nothing that changes its composition in any way. You just churn whole milk until the solid fat starts floating on the top. Then you skim it off and press it into blocks in a butter mould. So if ancient people were eating butter as a regular part of their diet, they were either lactase-persistent, or unwittingly giving themselves indigestion.

    I’ve put a lot of effort into learning the relative lactose contents of various dairy foods, since I’m one of these non-lactase-persistent people. There are still lots of us out here.

  • CheeseMaker

    Umm… I hate to break it to you Interrobang, but if you use unpasteurized milk to make the butter, you end up with cultured butter which is lactose free. The butter most common today has lactose because it’s made with pasteurized milk. Since pasteurization wasn’t invented until 1862, it’s pretty safe to assume that the naturally occurring milk bacteria was present in the milk when the butter was processed 9000 years ago.

    Clearly you need to do a bit more research on dairy foods and dairy processing.

  • CheeseMakerFan



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