Letter | Published:

First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium bc

Nature volume 486, pages 390394 (21 June 2012) | Download Citation


In the prehistoric green Sahara of Holocene North Africa—in contrast to the Neolithic of Europe and Eurasia—a reliance on cattle, sheep and goats emerged as a stable and widespread way of life, long before the first evidence for domesticated plants or settled village farming communities1,2,3. The remarkable rock art found widely across the region depicts cattle herding among early Saharan pastoral groups, and includes rare scenes of milking; however, these images can rarely be reliably dated4. Although the faunal evidence provides further confirmation of the importance of cattle and other domesticates5, the scarcity of cattle bones makes it impossible to ascertain herd structures via kill-off patterns, thereby precluding interpretations of whether dairying was practiced. Because pottery production begins early in northern Africa6 the potential exists to investigate diet and subsistence practices using molecular and isotopic analyses of absorbed food residues7. This approach has been successful in determining the chronology of dairying beginning in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of the Near East and its spread across Europe8,9,10,11. Here we report the first unequivocal chemical evidence, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major alkanoic acids of milk fat, for the adoption of dairying practices by prehistoric Saharan African people in the fifth millennium bc. Interpretations are supported by a new database of modern ruminant animal fats collected from Africa. These findings confirm the importance of ‘lifetime products’, such as milk, in early Saharan pastoralism, and provide an evolutionary context for the emergence of lactase persistence in Africa.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    & Domesticating animals in Africa: implications of genetic and archaeological findings. J. World Prehist. 24, 1–23 (2011)

  2. 2.

    & Cattle before crops: the beginnings of food production in Africa. J. World Prehist. 16, 99–143 (2002)

  3. 3.

    in Droughts, Food and Culture: Ecological Change and Food Security in Africa’s Later Prehistory (ed. ) 225–250 (Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2002)

  4. 4.

    & The date and context of Neolithic rock art in the Sahara: engravings and ceremonial monuments from Messak Settafet (south-west Libya). Antiquity 84, 954–975 (2010)

  5. 5.

    in Droughts, Food and Culture: Ecological Change and Food Security in Africa’s Later Prehistory (ed. ) 195–208 (Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2002)

  6. 6.

    et al. The emergence of pottery in Africa during the tenth millennium cal BC: new evidence from Ounjougou (Mali). Antiquity 83, 905–917 (2009)

  7. 7.

    Organic residue analysis in archaeology: the archaeological biomarker revolution. Archaeometry 50, 895–924 (2008)

  8. 8.

    et al. Earliest date for milk use in the Near East and southeastern Europe linked to cattle herding. Nature 455, 528–531 (2008)

  9. 9.

    et al. Direct chemical evidence for widespread dairying in prehistoric Britain. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 1524–1529 (2003)

  10. 10.

    & Direct demonstration of milk as an element of archaeological economies. Science 282, 1478–1481 (1998)

  11. 11.

    et al. Did the first farmers of central and eastern Europe produce dairy foods? Antiquity 79, 882–894 (2005)

  12. 12.

    , , & The calcareous tufa in the Tadrart Acacus Mt. (SW Fezzan, Libya) An early Holocene palaeoclimate archive in the central Sahara. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 287, 81–94 (2010)

  13. 13.

    et al. Abrupt onset and termination of the African Humid Period: rapid climate responses to gradual insolation forcing. Quat. Sci. Rev. 19, 347–361 (2000)

  14. 14.

    The secondary exploitation of animals in the Old World. World Archaeol. 15, 90–104 (1983)

  15. 15.

    et al. in La Memoria dell’arte. Le pitture rupestri dell’Acacus tra passato e futuro (eds & ) 73–255 (All’Insegna del Giglio, 2008)

  16. 16.

    & The Secret of the Desert: the Rock Art of the Messak Settafet and Messak Mellet, Libya (Golf, 1995)

  17. 17.

    & in On Shelter’s Ledge: Histories, Theories and Methods of Rockshelter Research (eds , & ) 125–132 (British Archaeological Reports S1655, Archaeopress, 2007)

  18. 18.

    , & Decoding an Early Holocene Saharan stratified site. Ceramic dispersion and site formation processes in the Takarkori rock-shelter, Acacus Mountains, Libya. J. Afric. Archaeol. 2, 3–21 (2004)

  19. 19.

    in Archaeology and Environment in the Libyan Sahara. The Excavations in the Tadrart Acacus, 1978–1983 (ed. ) 231–254 (British Archaeological Reports S368, Archaeopress, 1987)

  20. 20.

    et al. Quantification and distribution of lipid in archaeological ceramics: implications for sampling potsherds for organic residue analysis. Archaeometry 35, 211–223 (1993)

  21. 21.

    Lipid Metabolism in Ruminant Animals (Pergamon, 1981)

  22. 22.

    et al. Detection of palm fruit lipids in archaeological pottery from Qasr Ibrim, Egyptian Nubia. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 268, 593–597 (2001)

  23. 23.

    in Chemistry and Biochemistry of Natural Waxes (ed. ) 235–287 (Elsevier, 1976)

  24. 24.

    & The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects 2nd edn (Elsevier, 1987)

  25. 25.

    , , & Isoscapes: Understanding Movement, Pattern and Process on Earth through Isotope Mapping (Springer, 2010)

  26. 26.

    et al. The T allele of a single-nucleotide polymorphism 13.9 kb upstream of the lactase gene (LCT) (C−13.9kbT) does not predict or cause the lactase-persistence phenotype in Africans. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 74, 1102–1110 (2004)

  27. 27.

    , , , & A worldwide correlation of lactase persistence phenotype and genotypes. BMC Evol. Biol. 10, 36 (2010)

  28. 28.

    et al. The earliest horse harnessing and milking. Science 323, 1332–1335 (2009)

  29. 29.

    , & Chemical analyses of organic residues in archaeological pottery from Arbon Bleiche 3, Switzerland—evidence for dairying in the late Neolithic. J. Archaeol. Sci. 33, 1–13 (2006)

  30. 30.

    , , & Subsistence practices and pottery use in Neolithic Jordan: molecular and isotopic evidence. J. Archaeol. Sci. 36, 937–946 (2009)

Download references


We thank the UK Natural Environment Research Council for a PhD studentship to J. D. and the Life Science Mass Spectrometry Facility. Sapienza, University of Rome (Grandi Scavi di Ateneo) and The Minister of Foreign Affairs (DGSP) are thanked for funding for the Italian Archaeological Mission in the Sahara. Our Libyan colleagues in the Departments of Archaeology in Tripoli and Ghat, in particular S. Agab, are also thanked. The USA National Science Foundation and The Royal Society are further thanked for funding.

Author information


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

    • Julie Dunne
    • , Richard P. Evershed
    • , Mélanie Salque
    •  & Lucy Cramp
  2. Dipartimento di Chimica Inorganica, Metallorganica e Analitica “Lamberto Malatesta”, Università degli Studi di Milano - Via G. Venezian 21, 20133 Milano, Italy

    • Silvia Bruni
  3. African Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-6324, USA

    • Kathleen Ryan
  4. Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità, Sapienza, Università di Roma, Via Palestro, 63 - 00185 Roma, Italy

    • Stefano Biagetti
    •  & Savino di Lernia
  5. School of Geography, Archaeology & Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Private Bag 3, Wits 2050, South Africa

    • Savino di Lernia


  1. Search for Julie Dunne in:

  2. Search for Richard P. Evershed in:

  3. Search for Mélanie Salque in:

  4. Search for Lucy Cramp in:

  5. Search for Silvia Bruni in:

  6. Search for Kathleen Ryan in:

  7. Search for Stefano Biagetti in:

  8. Search for Savino di Lernia in:


R.P.E. and S.d.L. conceived and planned the project. J.D., R.P.E. and S.d.L. wrote the paper. J.D., M.S., L.C. and S.B. performed analytical work and data analysis, and S.d.L. and K.R. directed sampling of archaeological materials and reference fats. All other authors either directed excavations or provided expertise in relation to pottery together with essential insights into the study region and sites. M.S. and L.C. contributed to revising the article. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard P. Evershed.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-2 and Supplementary Figures 1-3.

About this article

Publication history






Further reading Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.