Neolithic Britons Ate Dairy 6,000 Years Ago, Fossil Tartar Shows

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Milking a cow
Some time in the Neolithic, a mutation enabled us to not only eat cows but drink their milk and digest it, too.Credit: Ronaldo Almeida / Shutterstock
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Ancient Britons living 6,000 years ago ate dairy, say archaeologists from the University of York based on analysis of their dental plaque.

They may not have been the earliest dairy consumers in the world, but at this point they are the earliest proven ones.

Moreover, sheep and cows apparently only reached the islands about the same time, around six millennia ago. That in turn suggests the Neolithic farmers on the islands began utilizing the milk from the get-go, despite the possibility that they would have suffered digestive challenges.

The study by Sophy Charlton and colleagues was reported Tuesday in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

The discovery of milk proteins in their tartar may suggest that the Neolithic farmers developed the ability to digest dairy in adulthood — a rarity in mature mammals — very soon after the animals arrived on the islands. Alternatively, they were tolerant of abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and flatulence.

Milk proteins were found in the plaque of seven Neolithic BritonsCredit: Dr Sophy Charlton, University of

Specifically, the tartar had trapped a dairy protein called beta lactoglobulin, which couldn’t have gotten there any other way, write Charlton and colleagues.

Likely the British islanders weren’t the first people in the world to eat dairy, though. That privilege probably belongs to the Mesopotamians and Levantines who domesticated the cow, goat and sheep about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, though theoretically these first farmers could have confined their culinary attentions to the flesh for millennia on end.

But absent any study of tooth tartar from Mesopotamian skeletons from 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the prehistoric British farmers of 6,000 years ago are presently the earliest provable example of milk consumption.

Goats are hardy and were a favored animal in the Neolithic.Credit: \ Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / N

The timeline suggests the ancient Britons began consuming milk at about the same time the dairy animals reached the British islands — which in turn suggests dairy consumption took off quickly.

In almost all mammals, the production of lactase — the enzyme that digests dairy — stops after weaning. The gene coding for lactase gets “turned off.” It makes evolutionary sense: There is no reason for weaned animals to waste metabolic resources on producing an enzyme they don’t need anymore. So, the phenomenon of lactase persistence in some human populations is considered anomalous in the mammalian sphere and is believed to have developed only after the domestication of dairy animals.

Even today, most people are born able to digest milk but lose that ability after weaning. The pain and other phenomena associated with lactose intolerance are caused by bacteria digesting the milk in their stead, and secreting gas.

The seven specimens whose dental hygiene was analyzed came from three separate, distant sites: Hambledon Hill in southern England; and Hazleton North and Banbury Lane in the center. All the individuals had partaken of the milk of the cow or sheep or goat, and possibly all three.

Hard cheese is easier to digest than milk and humankind's predilection for dairy may have begun with this.Credit: David Bachar

“The fact that we found this protein in the dental calculus of individuals from three different Neolithic sites may suggest that dairy consumption was a widespread dietary practice in the past,” elaborates lead author Charlton.

And this is the rub. Genetic evidence has suggested that lactase persistence hadn't developed back then. Analysis of 7,700-year-old skeletons from Hungary done in 2014 found no evidence of lactose tolerance, which in turn indicates that the early farmers really did just keep the animals for their meat. When and how did lactase persistence develop?

We don’t know, but the working assumption is that early farmers didn’t drink the milk as such: that would have caused intense illness and antisocial behavior — but they may have turned it into hard cheese, Charlton explains. Cheese production removes most of the lactose.

Moving on 6,000 years to the present day, lactase persistence is most common in northern Europe and the Middle East. It is least common in Asia and southern Europe, while the profile of persistence in Africa is more mixed.

Today's peoples of the British isles, including in northern islands that sheep and cows reached about 5,500 years ago, are highly lactose tolerant. They love their dairy and can eat it too. Tolerance rates across the Channel are a little lower.

The bottom line seems to be that while the Neolithic Britons were learning to settle down, husband animals and farm wheat, barley and other grains, they simultaneously developed an appreciation of dairy. They were in the midst of rich cultural development: Building Stonehenge, to name but one site, apparently also began about 5,500 years ago, while various complex burial mounds and other sites are even older. Maybe the builders of the great British monuments of yore badly needed extra sources of protein.

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