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Monday, 27 January, 2003, 22:36 GMT
Prehistoric Britons' taste for milk
Map, BBC
The oldest direct evidence for the existence of dairy farming has been discovered in the UK.

It is based on a chemical analysis of milk fat deposits left on pottery fragments found to be 6,500 years old.

It is clear that by the time farming reached Britain, milk was already an important commodity

Dr Mark Copley, Bristol University
Although the practice of milking animals for food was undoubtedly developed elsewhere and then introduced into Britain, this is the earliest time for which researchers have been able to show definitively that it was going on.

According to the chief scientist of English Heritage, Dr Sebastian Payne, the discovery demonstrates once again the sophistication of Neolithic society.

He told BBC News Online: "Don't underestimate prehistoric man; it is a mistake to think he was simple and stupid. This work tells us that the diet of the time was far more varied than is sometimes thought."

He added: "We can't be certain but it was likely that prehistoric man converted the milk to cheese or butter because these are products you can store and will last through the year."

Carbon atoms

Dr Payne and colleagues from Bristol University report their pot analysis in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

They examined the chemical residues on 950 potsherds - ancient broken dishes - from 14 archaeological sites right across the UK.

Sherd, PNAS/Bristol
The potsherds were taken from all over the UK
But the oldest fragments were sourced from Neolithic digs at Hambledon Hill in Dorset, the Eton Rowing Lake in Buckinghamshire and Windmill Hill in Wiltshire.

The researchers examined each sherd for evidence of fats from milk or meat.

Although the fats are chemically very similar, milk fats contain different ratios of carbon atoms (carbon-12 and carbon-13) compared to meat fats.

This is a direct outcome of the way mammary glands in ruminant animals such as sheep and cows process the carbon in their diet to make milk.

The results of the study showed clearly that even the oldest sherds had come into contact with milk, indicating the practice of dairying in Britain goes back beyond 4,500 BC

Next step

Scientists believe humans began to move away from a society based on hunting and gathering to one built around farming more than 10,000 years ago.

The new agrarian technologies are likely to have originated in the Near East, before spreading north and west. But establishing when and where exactly dairy husbandry started has not been easy.

Archaeologists have relied on artefacts such as ancient cheese strainers to get some clues as to its origin. There are even some pictorial records dating to about 3,000 or 4,000 BC that suggest the practice was going on in Egypt and the Sahara.

And the discovery of animal bones of greater age at archaeological sites also hints at systematic milking, as it is younger animals (even today) that tend to be kept for their meat.

"It is clear that by the time farming reached Britain, milk was already an important commodity," said Dr Mark Copley, the lead researcher on the PNAS study.

"The next big step is to trace the line back through the earlier communities to find the origin of dairying.

"If one was to take a pot from, say, the Mediterranean, it is more than likely we would find older evidence. This is what we are trying to do now."

See also:

04 Jun 02 | England
26 Sep 01 | Science/Nature
12 Oct 99 | Science/Nature
20 Nov 98 | Science/Nature
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