Got milk? Research reveals prehistoric British farmers did

Monday, 16 September, 2019

Got milk? Research reveals prehistoric British farmers did

The earliest direct evidence of milk consumption in the world has been attributed to prehistoric British farmers, according to researchers and archaeologists from the University of York. Researchers identified a milk protein called lactoglobulin (BLG) in the mineralised dental plaque of seven individuals who lived in the Neolithic period approximately 6000 years ago. Findings from the study were published in Archeological and Anthropological Sciences.

The Neolithic period in Britain ran from 4000 to 2000 BC; farming became a prevalent activity during that time, with domesticated animals such as cows, sheep, pigs and goats all used by Neolithic communities. People in that time also farmed crops such as wheat and barley, with archaeologists discovering evidence of complex cultural practices carried out by Neolithic communities, such as building large monumental and burial sites.

The discovery of milk proteins in this study is particularly notable, as previous genetic studies indicate that people who lived in this time had not cultivated the ability to digest the lactose in milk yet. It can be hypothesised that farmers may have been drinking small amounts of milk or processing it into other foodstuffs like cheese, thereby removing most of the lactose.

A jawbone used in the study — from the collections of the Dorset County Museum. Image credit: Dr Sophy Charlton, University of York.

The human dental plaque samples used in the study are the oldest to be analysed for ancient proteins, with the study representing the earliest identification of the milk whey protein BLG so far. The ancient human remains tested in the study came from three Neolithic sites — Hambledon Hill and Hazelton North in the south of England, and Banbury Lane in the East Midlands. Traces of milk proteins from cows, sheep or goats were found on all three individuals, suggesting that people in that era used multiple species to cultivate dairy products.

Dental plaque provides researchers with unique insights into the diets of ancient people, as dietary proteins get trapped in dental plaque when it is mineralised by components of saliva to form tartar or ‘dental calculus’. The discovery of dental calculus in individuals from three different Neolithic sites suggests that dairy consumption may have been a widespread dietary practice in the past.

“It would be a fascinating avenue for further research to look at more individuals and see if we can determine whether there are any patterns as to who was consuming milk in the archaeological past — perhaps the amount of dairy products consumed or the animals utilised varied along the lines of sex, gender, age or social standing,” said the lead author of the study, Dr Sophy Charlton, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York.

‘Lactase persistence’ is the result of a genetic mutation in a section of DNA that controls the activity of the lactase gene. This allows individuals to consume milk into adulthood, though how and why humans evolved this ability remains a mystery.

Researchers hope to identify more ancient individuals with evidence of BLG in the future, as this may provide insights into the practices of milk consumption and processing in the past, while developing their understanding of how genetics and culture have produced lactase persistence.

Image credit: ©

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