Researchers Track Spread of Dairy Production across Neolithic Atlantic Europe

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, archaeologists analyzed the molecular remains of food preserved in 6,000-7,000-year-old pottery from 246 pottery sherds from 24 Neolithic sites situated between Portugal and Normandy as well as the Western Baltic.

An artist’s impression of prehistoric humans in Europe.

“Our study is one of the largest regional comparisons of early pottery use,” said lead author Dr. Miriam Cubas, a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, the Department of History at the University of Oviedo and Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi.

“It has shed new light on the spread of early farming across Atlantic Europe and showed that there was huge variety in the way early farmers lived.”

Dr. Cubas and colleagues found evidence of dairy products in 80% of the pottery fragments from the Atlantic coast of what is now Britain and Ireland.

In comparison, dairy farming on the Southern Atlantic coast of what is now Portugal and Spain seems to have been much less intensive, and with a greater use of sheep and goats rather than cows.

The study confirms that the earliest farmers to arrive on the Southern Atlantic coast exploited animals for their milk but suggests that dairying only really took off when it spread to northern latitudes, with progressively more dairy products processed in ceramic vessels.

Prehistoric farmers colonizing Northern areas with harsher climates may have had a greater need for the nutritional benefits of milk, including vitamin D and fat.

“Latitudinal differences in the scale of dairy production might also be important for understanding the evolution of adult lactase persistence across Europe,” said senior author Professor Oliver Craig, a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York.

“Today, the genetic change that allows adults to digest the lactose in milk is at much higher frequency in Northwestern Europeans than their southern counterparts.”

The scientists found surprisingly little evidence for marine foods in pottery even from sites located close to the Atlantic shoreline, with plenty of opportunities for fishing and shellfish gathering.

An exception was in the Western Baltic where dairy foods and marine foods were both prepared in pottery.

“This surprising discovery could mean that many prehistoric farmers shunned marine foods in favor of dairy, but perhaps fish and shellfish were simply processed in other ways,” Dr. Cubas said.

“These results help us to gain more of an insight into the lives of people living during this process of momentous change in culture and lifestyle — from hunter-gatherer to farming.”

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