Neolithic vessels reveal dairy consumption in Europe 7,000 years ago

Neolithic vessels reveal dairy consumption in Europe 7,000 years ago

Dairy consumption was highly unequal among the first Neolithic villages of Western Europe, who consumed less in the southern regions of the Atlantic coast than in the northern regions. This is pointed out in a study with the involvement of the UAB, which explores the pottery with which these prehistoric societies cooked some 7,500 to 5,500 years ago and the relation these uses had with farming and herding.

The results of a new study reveal that dairy consumption was highly unequal among the first Neolithic villages of Western Europe, who consumed less in the southern regions of the Atlantic coast – Iberian Peninsula and France – than in the northern regions.

An international research team led by researcher Dr Miriam Cubas (University of York and University of Oviedo) has managed to recover molecular remains of food in the pottery used by the prehistoric societies existing 7,500 to 5,500 years ago. The results of the study, which included the involvement of André Colonese, researcher of the Department of Prehistory at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB), were published in the journal Nature Communications.

The chemical analysis of animal fat, plant wax, fish oil and resines preserved in pottery fragments has allowed Dr Cubas to explore the different uses of these recipients by Neolithic communities, and particularly their relation with farming and herding activities.

The results reflect a large variation in the use of pottery among these communities. Of all the resources identified, a large presence of dairy products stand out, with their presence increasing towards Northern Europe, the French Atlantic regions and British Isles. The authors conclude that this diversity may have been related to a difference in livestock activities, with a greater presence of cattle in the north and sheep and goat herding in southern Europe. In the Iberian Peninsula, these cooking practices reflect the importance of domestic animals (sheep and goats) as sources of meat that are introduced in those moments.

This is one of the broadest regional comparisons published until now on the use of pottery during the Prehistoric Era. One of the most surprising discoveries has been the absence of marine foods in the pottery, even from sites located close to the Atlantic shoreline, with plenty of opportunities for fishing and shellfish gatheringf. An exception was in the Western Baltic where dairy foods and marine foods were both prepared in pottery.

“Our study is one of the largest regional comparisons of early pottery use. 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. 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”, says lead author of the paper Dr Miriam Cubas.

Senior author of the paper, Professor Oliver Craig from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York states that “Latitudinal differences in the scale of dairy production might also be important for understanding the evolution of adult lactase persistence across Europe. 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”.

“This data offers us a view into the richness of cooking traditions among the first farmers of Western Europe, and the ability that these groups had in adapting to the different climatic and cultural conditions”, adds André Colonese.

The research team examined organic residues preserved in Early Neolithic pottery from 24 archaeological sites situated between Portugal and Normandy as well as in the Western Baltic. The study allows to expand the knowledge on the cooking practices of these first farming communities, the role different foods played and their effect on the diet of these first societies.

The study included the involvement of researchers from the University of York, the University of Oviedo, the Aranzadi Science Society, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, the Max Planck Institute, the University of Cantabria, the INRAP, the Normandy Regional Archaeology Service, the Archaeology Service of the Department of Calvados, University of Lisbon; the UNIARQ, the University of Santiago de Compostela, the University of Rennes, the Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria, the Catalan Institute for Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution, Rovira i Virgili University; the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas and the University of Barcelona.

Original article: Cubas et al. 2020. Latitudinal gradient in dairy production with the introduction of farming in Atlantic Europe. Nature Communications. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-15907-4

This research was funded by the European Commission through the Marie Curie project (First Ceramics of Atlantic Europe: manufacture and function -CerAM, MSC 653354) led by Dr Miriam Cubas.

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