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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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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Author notes

    • Andrew G. Sherratt



  1. Organic Geochemistry Unit, Bristol Biogeochemistry Research Centre, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol, Cantock’s Close, Bristol BS8 1TS, UK

    • Richard P. Evershed
    •  & Mark S. Copley
  2. English Heritage, 1 Waterhouse Square, 138–142 Holborn, London EC1N 2ST, UK

    • Sebastian Payne
  3. Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

    • Andrew G. Sherratt
  4. Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford, 6 Keble Road, Oxford OX1 3QJ, UK

    • Jennifer Coolidge
  5. Department of Archaeology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki 54124, Greece

    • Duska Urem-Kotsu
    •  & Kostas Kotsakis
  6. Prehistory Department, Istanbul University, Istanbul 34134, Turkey

    • Mehmet Özdoğan
    • , Mihriban Özbaşaran
    •  & Erhan Bıçakcı
  7. Archaeology Department, Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart Üniversitesi, Çanakkale 17020, Turkey

    • Aslý E. Özdoğan
  8. Netherlands National Museum of Antiquities and Leiden University, PO Box 1114, 2301 EC Leiden, The Netherlands

    • Olivier Nieuwenhuyse
    •  & Peter M. M. G. Akkermans
  9. School of History and Archaeology, Humanities Building, University of Cardiff, Colum Drive, Cardiff CF10 3EU, UK

    • Douglass Bailey
  10. Romanian National Museum of History, Calea Vitoriei, nr. 12, Sect. 3, cod poştal 030026, Bucureşti, Romania

    • Radian-Romus Andeescu
  11. School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK

    • Stuart Campbell
  12. Institute of Archaeology, University College, London, 31–34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK

    • Shahina Farid
  13. Archaeology Center, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Ian Hodder
  14. Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem 91905, Israel

    • Nurcan Yalman
    •  & Yossef Garfinkel
  15. Department of Anthropology, University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, California 92093-0532, USA

    • Thomas Levy
    •  & Margie M. Burton


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