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25 November 2016
People consumed milk and cheese 9,000 years ago

Researchers analysing more than 500 pottery vessels from 82 sites in the northern Mediterranean dating from the seventh to fifth millennia BCE found that dairy farming was popular in some areas, but not all. The eastern and western parts of the northern Mediterranean commonly practiced dairy farming - including parts of modern-day Spain, France, and Turkey - but northern Greece did not. There, meat production was the main activity.
     The varying landscape in the northern Mediterranean likely influenced what sort of animals the Neolithic people domesticated. Rugged terrains are more suitable for sheep and goats, while open well-watered landscapes are better suited for cattle.
     The new analysis supports the team's earlier work showing that milk use was highly regionalised in the Near East in the seventh millennium BCE. Information about ancient dairy use and meat production can help scientists understand what factors drove the domestication of cud-chewing animals.
     According to Cynthianne Spiteri - junior professor of archaeometry at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, and the study's lead researcher - dairying began with the onset of agriculture, and likely helped early farmers. "[Milk] is likely to have played an important role in providing a nourishing and storable food product, which was able to sustain early farmers, and consequently, the spread of farming in the western Mediterranean," Spiteri says.
     Study researcher Oliver Craig, a professor of archaeology at the University of York, says organic remnants in the pots show that Neolithic people certainly exploited milk, and suggest that they were transforming milk into products such as yogurt and cheese, to remove the lactose which some people are unable to digest.
     Craig explains: "We know that much of the world's population today are still intolerant to lactose, so it is very important to know at what point people in the past were exposed to it and how long they have had to adapt to it."

Edited from LiveScience (17 November 2016)

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