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Earliest date for milk use in the Near East and southeastern Europe linked to cattle herding

Abstract

The domestication of cattle, sheep and goats had already taken place in the Near East by the eighth millennium bc1,2,3. Although there would have been considerable economic and nutritional gains from using these animals for their milk and other products from living animals—that is, traction and wool—the first clear evidence for these appears much later, from the late fifth and fourth millennia bc4,5. Hence, the timing and region in which milking was first practised remain unknown. Organic residues preserved in archaeological pottery6,7 have provided direct evidence for the use of milk in the fourth millennium in Britain7,8,9, and in the sixth millennium in eastern Europe10, based on the δ13C values of the major fatty acids of milk fat6,7. Here we apply this approach to more than 2,200 pottery vessels from sites in the Near East and southeastern Europe dating from the fifth to the seventh millennia bc. We show that milk was in use by the seventh millennium; this is the earliest direct evidence to date. Milking was particularly important in northwestern Anatolia, pointing to regional differences linked with conditions more favourable to cattle compared to other regions, where sheep and goats were relatively common and milk use less important. The latter is supported by correlations between the fat type and animal bone evidence.

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Figure 1
Figure 2: Partial gas chromatograms of total lipid extracts from pottery.
Figure 3: Plots of the Δ 13 C values for archaeological animal fat residues in Neolithic pottery.
Figure 4: Percentage animal fat types in pottery versus meat yields based on faunal remains.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Leverhulme Trust for their support (F/00182/T), and the UK Natural Environment Research Council for mass spectrometry facilities.

Author Contributions R.P.E., A.G.S. and S.P. conceived and planned the project. R.P.E. and S.P. wrote the paper. M.S.C., J.C. and D.U.-K. undertook sampling, analytical work and data analysis. All other authors either directed excavations or provided expertise in relation to pottery and/or faunal collections and essential insights into the study region and sites.

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Correspondence to Richard P. Evershed.

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Evershed, R., Payne, S., Sherratt, A. et al. Earliest date for milk use in the Near East and southeastern Europe linked to cattle herding. Nature 455, 528–531 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07180

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