Milking the Sahara – 7000 years ago
Research by an international team of scientists, led by the University of Bristol has confirmed the first unequivocal evidence that humans in prehistoric Saharan Africa used cattle for their milk nearly 7,000 years ago.
Changing life in the Sahara
Unglazed pottery excavated from an archaeological site in Libya was analysed for fatty acids to confirm if dairy fats were processed in the vessels. This first identification of dairying practices in the African continent, by prehistoric Saharan herders, can be reliably dated to the fifth millennium BC.
What is now the Sahara Desert was a wetter, greener place around 10,000 years ago and the transitional hunter-gatherer people in the area lived a semi-sedentary life, utilising pottery, hunting wild game and collecting wild cereals. However, around 7,000-5,000 years ago as the region became more arid, the people adopted a more nomadic, pastoral way of life which is attested by the presence of cattle bones in cave deposits and river camps.
Domesticated animals were clearly significant to these people: the engraved and painted rock art found widely across the region includes many vivid representations of animals, particularly cattle. However, there was no direct proof that these cattle were milked – until now.
Researchers at the Organic Geochemistry Unit in Bristol’s School of Chemistry, with colleagues at Sapienza, University of Rome, studied unglazed pottery dating from around 7,000 years ago, found at the Takarkori rock shelter in the Tadrart Acacus Mountains, Libya.
Using lipid biomarker and stable carbon isotope analysis, they examined preserved fatty acids held within the fabric of the pottery and found that half of the vessels had been used for processing dairy fats. This confirms for the first time the early presence of domesticated cattle in the region and the importance of milk to its prehistoric pastoral people. The team used gas chromatography and GC–mass spectrometry to determine the identities and distributions of plant and animal lipids extracted from the ceramics which were then compared with modern and archaeological reference materials collected from the region in order to ascertain their composition.
Julie Dunne, a PhD student in Bristol’s School of Chemistry and one of the authors of the paper said: “We already know how important dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter, which can be repeatedly extracted from an animal throughout its lifetime, were to the people of Neolithic Europe, so it’s exciting to find proof that they were also significant in the lives of the prehistoric people of Africa.
“As well as identifying the early adoption of dairying practices in Saharan Africa, these results also provide a background for our understanding of the evolution of the lactase persistence gene which seems to have arisen once prehistoric people started consuming milk products.
“The gene is found in Europeans and across some Central African groups, thus supporting arguments for the movement of people, together with their cattle, from the Near East into eastern African in the early to middle Holocene, around 8,000 years ago.”
Find confirms the importance of dairy
While the remarkable rock-art of Saharan Africa contains many representations of cattle – including, in a few cases, depictions of the actual milking of a cow – it can rarely be reliably dated. Also, the scarcity of cattle bones in archaeological sites makes it impossible to ascertain herd structures, thereby preventing interpretations of whether dairying was practised.
“Molecular and isotopic analysis of absorbed food residues in pottery, however, is an excellent way to investigate the diet and subsistence practice of early peoples. It’s an approach my colleagues and I have previously applied to successfully determine the chronology of dairying, beginning in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East and spreading across Europe.”
The prehistoric tradition of dairying in Africa was researched by Olivier Hanotte and his colleagues working at the International Livestock Research Institute, who in 2002 published a paper providing evidence of the domestication of cattle in Africa: African pastoralism: Genetic imprints of origins and migrations, Science: 12 April 2002, Vol 296.
Source: Bristol University
- Julie Dunne, Richard P. Evershed, Mélanie Salque, Lucy Cramp, Silvia Bruni, Kathleen Ryan, Stefano Biagetti and Savino di Lerni, ‘First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium BC’ Nature 486, 390–394 (21 June 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11186
- Read more on the blog Dispatches from Turtle Island: North Africans consumed milk products 7 K.Y.A., 20th June 2012; and The oldest domesticated cattle bones in Africa, 13th June 2012.
- Mary Anne Tafuri, Alex Bentley, Giorgio Manzi, Savino di Lernia, 2006, Consuming food, embodying places.Dietary and social resources in the Holocene Acacus Mountains (Libyan Sahara), La Sapienza (full pdf)
- Rock-Art of Tadrart Acacus – Libya
- For more information on using small molecules to answer archaeological questions visit the Organic Geochemistry Unit