We have been consuming milk every day as a part of our staple diet. But have we ever taken a second off to find when it became a part of our day to day meal???
A new analysis of Neolithic farmers’ dental plaque suggests that milk has been in humans’ diets for a millennia.
As researchers of England’s University of York report in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, traces of beta lactoglobulin, a protein present in cow, sheep and goat milk entombed in the mineralized dental plaque of seven individuals who lived in the Neolithic period around 6,000 years ago. This is the earliest direct evidence of milk consumption found to date.
The ancient human remains tested in the study were taken from three different Neolithic sites. Individuals from all three sites showed the presence of milk proteins from cows, sheep, or goats, suggesting people were exploiting multiple species for dairy products.
The discovery of milk proteins is particularly interesting as recent genetic studies suggest that people who lived at this time did not have the ability to digest the lactose in milk. To get around this, the ancient farmers may have been drinking just small amounts of milk or processing it into other foodstuffs such as cheese which removes most of the lactose.
The researchers say ‘Lactase persistence’, which allows for the continued consumption of milk into adulthood, is the result of a genetic mutation in a section of DNA that controls the activity of the lactase gene. However, the mechanisms behind how and when humans evolved this ability remains a mystery.