Letter | Published:

First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium bc

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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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

Affiliations

  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

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Contributions

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.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11186

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