European cheese from 7400 years ago, and “yoghourt” in the Sahara 7000 years ago

One month ago (12th December 2012) a work (Salque et al. 2012) was published online in Nature, which provides archaeological evidence of cheese making in present Poland about 5400 years before Christ (BC). And in last June was also published another study in Nature (Dunne et al. 2012) which evidenced the production of fermented milk products like yoghourt in northeastern Sahara (now Libya) about 5000 BC.

Using the milk of other animals

Agriculture, that is, the domestication of plants by humans, began between 10000 and 5000 BC mainly in the Middle East (the Fertile Crescent, from the Nile to the Euphrates), but also independently in other regions, such as India, China and various parts of America and Africa. The Neolithic agricultural revolution led to the establishment of sedentary populations and the subsequent birth of cities and civilizations. At the same time, in these sites there were domesticated also animals, but it is likely that the domestication of cattle, sheep and goats have already occurred before, in nomad populations. The use of these animals brought some important advances, using them for secondary uses without killing them (the primary use is the flesh) such as traction, wool, and milk and dairy products.

1-M Kiani Qashqai Persia 3-NOMAD-PLACE-milk

Nomad Qashqai (Persia) milking a sheep. Photo: M. Kiani

The first pictorial and written records of the use of the milk of domestic animals are from Egypt and Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. But recently, the first clear evidence for previous organic waste stored in ceramic remains has been found, by analyzing the values of δ 13C (ratio between the isotopes 13C and 12C) of the main fatty acids from fat of milk. This technique, from Dudd and Eversheds (1998), is based on the differences between the values of δ 13C of stearic acid (C 18:0) in milk and adipose tissue of the same body of animal, due to the higher proportion of carbon derived from carbohydrates in the diet used in the biosynthesis of C 18:0 in body fat compared to milk, where 40% of C 18:0 derived from unsaturated fats.

This technique of δ 13C has shown the use of milk in the 4th millennium BC in Britain, in the 6th millennium in Eastern Europe, and recently (Eversheds et al. 2008) has been shown that in the 7th millennium BC, 9000 years ago, there was milking in the Middle East and Southeast Europe, particularly in Anatolia.

But when the adults began to drink human milk?

2-beure llet

As you know, the lactose of milk is not tolerated by many adults, especially of Asian, Native Americans and many Africans. The enzyme lactase that hydrolyzes lactose into glucose and galactose is present in all the babies, but like all other mammals, when they become older, the gene for lactase is not expressed. The exception is those people that maintain the production of lactase in adulthood and so they can drink milk without problems. For those who do not tolerate milk, the reason is due to lactose fermentation by bacteria in the gut, which gives rise to diarrhea, flatulence and other disorders.

3-Rainer Zenz 550px-Laktoseintoleranz-1.svg

Percentages of human populations not tolerant to lactose. Map made by Rainer Zenz.

The humans more tolerant to lactose are of European origin and those in regions nearby the Sahara and the Middle East. In Europe there is a gradient from high to low tolerance northwest towards the southeast. Molecular biology studies have shown that tolerance to lactose appeared by mutation of a single nucleotide at different times and places, between 8000 and 3000 years ago, in pastoral peoples of northern Europe and Arabia (Swallow 2003, Enattah et al. 2008, Tellam 2012). This genetic characteristic was selected due to its positive nutritional benefits, and also because in the desert milk is a source of water, and also in northern Europe milk can replace the lack of calcium due to low solar radiation and therefore short synthesis of vitamin D needed for calcium absorption.

Cheese and fermented milk products for lactose intolerants

Cheese is the curdled milk from which is extracted, in part or all, the whey, id est, the milk with water soluble components, which are mostly lactose. The remaining precipitate is the cheese, which contains fat and milk protein but very little lactose. Therefore, for people lactose-intolerant cheese is a food nutritionally equivalent to milk, but without the inconvenience of lactose. In addition, cheese is kept longer than milk and takes many different tastes and textures, depending on the curdling process and on microorganisms involved in their maturation. In fermented milk such as yoghourt and other (Kefir, Kumi, Leben, etc.) microorganisms are involved, especially lactic acid bacteria, which consume part of lactose and produce lactic acid, which favors conservation. The content of lactose in these fermented milks is not as low as in cheese but they can be consumed by most lactose intolerant people.

For this reason, the use of various types of cheese and / or fermented milk is almost universal to humans, regardless of whether or not they are tolerant to lactose and probably it existed in various nomad peoples, with the first domesticated animals, and surely this was the first way to use the milk of these animals.

Evidence of cheese made in Europe about 7400 years

As said earlier, a work (Salque et al 2012) has been recently published online in Nature which provides archaeological evidence of cheese making in today’s Poland about 5400 years before Christ (BC).

At the beginning of the Neolithic sites (about 8000 years) from various parts of Europe containers with small holes appear, with shaped sieve, that have been thought for years as strainers cheese, similar to those used today in some regions. The milk is placed in the container, the rennet is added (from the stomach of ruminants, containing protease), and the precipitated curdled is squeezed, separating out the whey through the holes, to get the cheese (Subbaraman 2012).

4-ceramica formtagera3

Drawing representing a reconstructed vessel (left) and a portion of an actual piece of this container (right) with holes as a sieve, from a site of Kuyavia region (in central Poland). Image from Salque et al. (2012).

Salque et al. (2012) have shown by the above mentioned technique δ 13C (in addition to analyze by gas chromatography the composition of lipids) that the remains of fatty acids found at the site of vessel Kuyavia (north of Warsaw) were coming from milk. The fat composition and δ 13C values ​​of these vessels strainers are different from those found in other containers like pots where probably meat of different animals was cooked. Therefore, they demonstrate that these containers were used to make cheeses strainers, specifically about 7400 years ago. The authors emphasize the importance of this type of pottery in the processing of dairy products, indicating in particular the importance for lactose-intolerant prehistoric communities.

Evidence of fermented milk (yoghourt ?) in the Sahara 7000 years ago

As said above, last June another study was published in Nature (Dunne et al. 2012), which evidenced the production of fermented milk in northeastern Sahara (now Libya) about 7000 years ago.

In contrast to the well known process of early Neolithic settlements and agriculture in the Middle East, in the Sahara the pastoralism with cows, sheep and goats began long before the domestication of plants. Seeing the present desert of Sahara, so arid and inhospitable, it seems impossible that human communities prospered there with large herds, but this region enjoyed a very favorable climatically wet period that began some 10.000 years ago and there is plenty of evidence that 8000 years ago there proliferated all types of wildlife in the savannas of the current Sahara. Groups of hunters and gatherers who lived there already used the pottery to preserve food, and gradually, with the increase of the drought, had become more dependent on livestock.

A demonstration of these nomad livestock are the remarkable paintings and rock carvings found in the desert of southwest Libya (Wadi Teshuinat or Takarkori Acacus mountains, or in the area of Wadi Tiksatin Messak) from some 7000 years ago, possibly the most important concentration of prehistoric art in the world, with many scenes of daily life. In these representations it can be seen the importance of livestock for these humans, with drawings of obvious milking cows. However, there is no reliable dating of these prints.

5-pintures rupestres Sahara

Schematic drawings of Wadi Teshuinat cave, southwest Libya. Figure taken from Dunne et al. (2012).

The group of Julie Dunne and Richard Eversheds at the University of Bristol with the group of Savino di Lernia from University of Sapienza, studied the remains of fat present in the pottery of Takarkori site by gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, and the aforementioned technical isotopes (δ 13C). Their results show that these potteries were used to produce fermented milk products like yoghourt, between 7000 and 4800 years ago. In addition, they found that milk fat came from a variety of plants from different places, which suggests that people were migrating with their herds, depending on the season. This work confirms that the economy of dairy products derived from domesticated cattle was active during this period, probably to compensate for lactose intolerant.


Murzuq ceramics, from the site of Takarkori, Libya. Photo: Savino di Lernia

Following this work, some scientists (Callaway 2012) have suggested that subsequent to this period, the lactose tolerance mutation arose in Europe and Arabia and spread through North Africa due to its advantages. In the increasingly arid climate of the desert, to drink fresh and uncontaminated milk should lead to a better hydration respect to other people which had the tolerance gene not activated. Thus, there was a strong selective pressure for the spread of lactose tolerance in north Africa.



Arjamaa O, T Vuorisalo (2010) Genes, cultura y dieta. Investigación y Ciencia, 405, june 2010, 69-77

Callaway E (2012) Pottery shards put a date on Africa’s dairying. North Africans may have been making yoghurt 7,000 years ago. Nature News, 20 june 2012-12-22

Dudd SN, RP Evershed (1998) Direct Demonstration of Milk as an Element of Archaeological Economies. Science 282, 1478-1481

Dunne J et al (2012) First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium bc. Nature 486, 390–394 (21 June 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11186

Enattah NS et al. (2008) Independent introduction of two lactase-persistence alleles into human populations reflects different history of adaptation to milk culture. Am J Human Genetics 82, 57-72.

Evershed RPet al. (2008) Earliest date for milk use in the Near East and southeastern Europe linked to cattle herding. Nature 455, 528-531 (25 September 2008), doi:10.1038/nature07180

Salque, M. et al. (2012) Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium BC in northern Europe. Nature

Subbaraman, N (2012) Art of cheese-making is 7,500 years old. Neolithic pottery fragments from Europe reveal traces of milk fats. Nature News, 12 dec 2012

Swallow DM (2003) Genetics of lactase persistence and lactose intolerance. Annu. Rev. Genet. 37, 197-219

Tellam R (2012) How dairying shaped the human genome. International Milk Genomics Consortium


About Albert Bordons

Professor at "Universitat Rovira i Virgili" in Tarragona. Born in Barcelona 1951. Scientific areas: microbiology, biochemistry, biotechnology, oenology. I like: nature, biological sciences, photography, mountains, ... Languages: catalan (first one), spanish, french, english and some italian.

Posted on 26/12/2012, in Lactic acid bacteria and products and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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  1. Pingback: Formatge europeu de fa 7400 anys i «iogurt» al Sàhara fa 7000 anys « BIOS i altres

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