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.
Your institute does not have access to this article
Open Access articles citing this article.
Nature Ecology & Evolution Open Access 07 April 2022
Scientific Reports Open Access 08 April 2021
Finding Oxford’s medieval Jewry using organic residue analysis, faunal records and historical documents
Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Open Access 20 February 2021
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Clutton-Brock, J. A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999)
Ducos, P. Proto-élevage et Élevage au Levant Sud au VIIe Millénaire B.C. les Données de la Damascène. Paléorient 19, 153–173 (1993)
Garrard, A., Colledge, S. & Martin, L. in The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia (ed. Harris, D. R.) 204–226 (University College London Press, 1996)
Sherratt, A. in Patterns of the Past. Studies in Honour of David Clark (eds Hodder, I., Isaac, G. & Hammond, N.) 261–305 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981)
Sherratt, A. The secondary exploitation of animals in the Old World. World Archaeol. 15, 90–104 (1983)
Dudd, S. N. & Evershed, R. P. Direct demonstration of milk as an element of archaeological economies. Science 282, 1478–1481 (1998)
Copley, M. S. et al. Direct chemical evidence for widespread dairying in prehistoric Britain. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 1524–1529 (2003)
Copley, M. S. et al. Dairying in antiquity: III — Evidence from absorbed lipid residues dating to the British Neolithic. J. Archaeol. Sci. 32, 523–546 (2005)
Copley, M. S. et al. Processing of milk products in pottery vessels through British prehistory. Antiquity 79, 895–908 (2005)
Craig, O. E. et al. Did the first farmers of central and eastern Europe produce dairy foods? Antiquity 79, 882–894 (2005)
Kohler-Rollefson, I. in Pastoralism in the Levant: Archaeological Materials in Anthropological Perspective (eds Bar-Yosef, O. & Khazanov, A.) 11–18 (Monographs in World Archaeology, 1992)
Levy, T. E. The emergence of specialized pastoralism in the southern Levant. World Archaeol. 15, 15–36 (1983)
Bogucki, P. I. Ceramic sieves of the linear pottery culture and their economic implications. Oxf. J. Archaeol. 3, 15–30 (1984)
Payne, S. Kill-off patterns in sheep and goats: The mandibles from Aşvan Kale. J. Anatol. Stud. 23, 281–303 (1973)
Legge, A. J. in Farming Practice in British Prehistory (ed. Mercer, R.) 169–181 (Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1981)
Grigson, C. in Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (ed. Levy, T. E.) 245–268 (Leicester Univ. Press, 1995)
Christie, W. W. Lipid Metabolism in Ruminant Animals 203–226 (Pergamon, 1981)
MacDonald, P., Edwards, R. A. & Greenhalgh, J. F. D. Animal Nutrition (Longman, 1988)
Evershed, R. P. et al. Formation of long-chain ketones in ancient pottery vessels by pyrolysis of acyl lipids. Tetrahedr. Lett. 36, 8875–8878 (1995)
Evershed, R. P., Vaughan, S. J., Dudd, S. N. & Coles, J. S. Fuel for thought: Beeswax in lamps and conical cups from Late Minoan Crete. Antiquity 71, 979–985 (1997)
Hansel, F. A., Copley, M. S., Madureira, L. A. S. & Evershed, R. P. Thermally produced ω-(o-alkylphenyl)alkanoic acids provide evidence for the processing of marine products in archaeological pottery vessels. Tetrahedr. Lett. 45, 2999–3002 (2004)
Richards, M. P., Pearson, J. A., Molleson, T. I., Rusell, N. & Martin, L. Stable isotope evidence of diet at Neolithic Catalhöyük, Turkey. J. Archaeol. Sci. 30, 67–76 (2003)
Faquhar, G. D., Ehleringer, J. R. & Hubrick, K. T. Carbon isotope discrimination and photosynthesis. Annu. Rev. Plant Physiol. Plant Mol. Biol. 40, 503–537 (1989)
Boessneck, J. & von den Driesch, A. Die Tierknockenfunde aus der Neolitischen Siedlung auf dem Fikirtepe bei Kadıköy am Marmaramee (Institut für Palaeoanatomie, Domestikationsforschung und Geschichte der Tiermedizin, Universität München, 1979)
Russell, N. & Martin, L. in Inhabiting Çatalhöyük: Reports from the 1995–99 Seasons (ed. Hodder, I.) 33–98 (McDonald Institute Monographs/British Institute of Archaeology, 2005)
Mukherjee, A. J., Berstan, R., Copley, M. S., Gibson, A. M. & Evershed, R. P. Compound-specific stable carbon isotope detection of pork consumption applied to the British Late Neolithic. Antiquity 81, 743–754 (2007)
Dudd, S. N., Regert, M. & Evershed, R. P. Assessing microbial lipid contributions during laboratory degradations of fats and oils and pure triacylglycerols absorbed in ceramic potsherds. Org. Geochem. 29, 1345–1354 (1998)
Aillaud, S. Field and Laboratory Studies of Diagenetic Reactions Affecting Lipid Residues Absorbed in Unglazed Archaeological Pottery Vessels. PhD thesis, Univ. Bristol (2000)
Charters, S., Evershed, R. P., Goad, L. J., Blinkhorn, P. W. & Denham, V. Quantification and distribution of lipid in archaeological ceramics: Implications for sampling potsherd for organic residue analysis. Archaeometry 35, 211–223 (1993)
Mukherjee, A. J., Copley, M. S., Berstan, R. & Evershed, R. P. in The Zooarchaeology of Fats, Oils, Milk and Dairying (eds Mulville, J. & Outram, A. K.) 77–92 (Oxbow Books, 2005)
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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
Dietary continuation in the southern Levant: a Neolithic-Chalcolithic perspective through organic residue analysis
Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2022)
Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (2022)
Nature Ecology & Evolution (2022)