Issue Date: August 11, 2008
Earliest Use Of Milk Traced By Fatty Acids
By analyzing organic residues on pottery shards, an international team of organic chemists and archaeologists has linked the earliest human use of animal milk to about 9,000 years ago (Nature, DOI:10.1038/nature07180). Archaeological evidence shows that humans living in the Near East and southeastern Europe had domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle for their meat and hides by about 10,000 years ago. Although humans ultimately came to value these three ruminant animals for their milk as well, evidence to prove that had remained scanty. Richard P. Evershed of the University of Bristol, in England, led the team that analyzed more than 2,000 pottery shards collected at several archaeological dig sites for evidence of fatty acids found in milk. Fats from ruminant meat are typically saturated, whereas fats from ruminant milk are almost 40% unsaturated. The researchers used gas chromatography and 13C mass spectral analysis to determine the number of double bonds in the detected fatty acids found on the pottery and confirmed that the contents were milk or other dairy products. Milkfat was found on shards from every site analyzed, demonstrating the importance of dairying to Neolithic human culture, the researchers conclude.
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