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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Dairying More Than 8000 Years Old

Archaeological news usually doesn't impress people unless a new tomb or underwater is found. So the fat residue on some old pots normally comes filed under the heading of specialists only.

Well, I'm a specialist and I think these old pots are megacool news. You see, they provide the oldest evidence of milk use ever found, more than 1500 years earlier than anything else known.

Photo by Olivier Nieuwenhuijse, University of Leiden

Talking about an article that was just published in the leading British science journal, Nature, wrote:

Professor Richard Evershed and colleagues describe how the analysis of more than 2,200 pottery vessels from southeastern Europe, Anatolia and the Levant extends the early history of milk by two millennia to the seventh millennium BC.

Vessels most likely to have been used for food preparation were selected to test where milk use started, and whether the use of milk products first began in the region where farming was pioneered – the Fertile Crescent – or whether it was an innovation of other regions.

Organic residues preserved in the pottery suggest that even before 6,500 BC milk was processed and stored, although this varied regionally depending on the farming techniques used.

Cattle, sheep and goats were familiar domesticated animals by the eighth millennium BC but until now, the first clear evidence for milk use was the late fifth millennium.

Why is this so important for those of us who can't drink milk? Everhard said:

Processing milk would have had two important advantages, providing a means of storing surplus milk as products, that is cheese, ghee, and so on, making them available throughout the year, and providing a solution for any problems of lactose intolerance; most lactose intolerant people have fewer problems with consuming processed milk products.

The spread of lactose tolerance moves along with a dairy culture from these beginners with low-lactose products in the Middle East. Those few humans with the mutant gene that allowed them to never stop making the lactase enzyme as adults had a slight reproductive advantage because milk and dairy products provided calcium and other critical nutrients. Since the mutant gene was dominant, they passed the gene to many of the children who passed it down to many of their children who passed it down to us, who live, at least in the West, in a dairy-laden culture. This was a good thing back when it meant survival and it's a good thing today.

I also advocate eating and drinking dairy products if you can do so without symptoms. It is a great source of nutrition. If you can't, at least we have many useful substitutes today. I'll probably get back to them tomorrow, but today is for our ingenious milk-drinking ancestors.

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Damien Downing said...

Well I'm a nutrition doc with a special interest in vitamin D and sunlight. I recently noted the work of Weston Price back in the 1920s, who said that "tribal" societies got vitamin D from food as well as from sunlight. See

I'm very interested in this area. It seems right that lactose-tolerance is the last significant mutation in humans. But do you know of any scientific references that substantiate this?

The sunlight point means that we are all deficient in vitamin D all the time, pretty much. But the food issue means that we should probably be taking in around 6,000iu of vit D per day - part from sunlight and part from food. Mucho more than the RDAs of 400-600iu.

Steve Carper said...

The lactase mutation has been the subject of intense scientific scrutiny in recent years.

See the following posts:

For vitamin D posts, see:

Damien Downing said...

Interesting stuff. Thank you for those links, which have taken a while to "digest" (sorry).
Of course milk has lost part of its merit as a source of vit D because, as weston price put it, "the anti-rachitic value of the milk depends on the degreee of insolation of the cow". Free-range butter, anyone?

Steve Carper said...

Just so people know, anti-rachitic means "therapeutically effective against rickets."