Article / Cattle / Dairying / North Africa

Got Milk? Dairy found essential to prehistoric development in Africa–new research

Multicoloured herd

Petroglyphs and pictographs in the Jebel Acacus, Libyan Sahara (photo on Flickr by Carsten ten Brink / 10b travelling).

This month’s publication of a scientific article on new evidence of livestock herding in prehistoric Africa is stirring interest. ScienceDaily, for example, reports the following: Chemical analysis of pottery reveals first dairying in Saharan Africa nearly 7,000 years ago, 20 Jun 2012.

‘The first unequivocal evidence that humans in prehistoric Saharan Africa used cattle for their milk nearly 7,000 years ago is described in research by an international team of scientists, led by the University of Bristol, UK, published June 20 in Nature.

‘By analysing fatty acids extracted from unglazed pottery excavated from an archaeological site in Libya, the researchers showed that dairy fats were processed in the vessels. This first identification of dairying practices in the African continent, by prehistoric Saharan herders, can be reliably dated to the fifth millennium BC.

‘Around 10,000 years ago the Sahara Desert was a wetter, greener place; early hunter-gatherer people in the area lived a semi-sedentary life, utilising pottery, hunting wild game and collecting wild cereals. Then, around 7,000–5,000 years ago as the region became more arid, the people adopted a more nomadic, pastoral way of life, as the presence of cattle bones in cave deposits and river camps suggests.

‘Domesticated animals were clearly significant to these people: the engraved and painted rock art found widely across the region includes many vivid representations of animals, particularly cattle. However, no direct proof that these cattle were milked existed—until now. . . .

This confirms for the first time the early presence of domesticated cattle in the region and the importance of milk to its prehistoric pastoral people.

‘Julie Dunne, a PhD student in Bristol’s School of Chemistry and one of the authors of the paper said: “We already know how important dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter, which can be repeatedly extracted from an animal throughout its lifetime, were to the people of Neolithic Europe, so it’s exciting to find proof that they were also significant in the lives of the prehistoric people of Africa.

‘”As well as identifying the early adoption of dairying practices in Saharan Africa, these results also provide a background for our understanding of the evolution of the lactase persistence gene which seems to have arisen once prehistoric people started consuming milk products. . . .”‘

That dairying has a prehistoric tradition in Africa will come as no surprise to Olivier Hanotte and his colleagues working at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) (Hanotte is now at the University of Nottingham), who in 2002 published a paper providing evidence of the domestication of cattle in Africa: African pastoralism: Genetic imprints of origins and migrations, Science: 12 April 2002, Vol 296. Hanotte and his colleagues say that their evidence indicates that ‘the earliest cattle originated within the African continent’:

Cattle pastoralism is widespread in Africa today and still forms the basis of life for millions across the continent. Two hypotheses for the origins of African domesticated cattle are currently debated. The North African subspecies of wild cattle or aurochs Bos primigenius . . . may have undergone an indigenous African domestication around 10,000 years ago, possibly in the northeast of the continent . . . . However, the archaeological evidence is disputed and the molecular data are not conclusive . . . . Alternatively, domesticated cattle could have been introduced into Africa from the Near East where cattle domestication is known to have occurred . . . . Domesticated within the continent but genetically influenced by the centers of cattle domestication in the Near East and the Indus Valley, the modern African cattle breeds represent a unique genetic resource at a juncture when there is an urgent need to improve livestock productivity for the benefit of the present and future human generations.’

Andrew Oh-Willeke, an attorney in Denver, Colorado, who blogs at Dispatches from Turtle Island, further comments on the recent prehistoric dairy paper as follows.

‘New research confirms an emerging consensus about when and where herding domesticated animals began to replace hunting and gathering in Africa (an activity that included the use of pottery and the collection of wild grains), and expands our understanding of how that herding society worked.

‘It happened in North Africa (including many places that are now too arid for this activity) and the Nile Valley after similar developments in the Middle East, but at about the same time that herding emerges in Europe. It happened before the main African origin crops were domesticated, and not long after the domestication in Egypt of the donkey. It appears to have involved both dairying and the use of cattle for meat from the start, or from very close to the start of a herding mode of food production.’

Subscribers to Nature may read the paper discussed, First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium BC, by Julie Dunne, Richard P Evershed, Mélanie Salque, Lucy Cramp, Silvia Bruni, Kathleen Ryan, Stefano Biagetti and Savino di Lernia, in Nature, 2012; 486 (7403): 390 DOI: 10.1038/nature11186

The post on Dispatches from Turtle Island Blog goes on to say the following about this paper.

‘The abstract of the paper notes that: “In the prehistoric green Sahara of Holocene North Africa—in contrast to the Neolithic of Europe and Eurasia—a reliance on cattle, sheep and goats emerged as a stable and widespread way of life, long before the first evidence for domesticated plants or settled village farming communities.”

‘Notably, the find comes from the central Saharan highlands, not the Mediterranean coast or what is currently the African Sahel. The find comes not from the “wet Sahara” period itself, but from the period when the Sahara was becoming increasingly arid. There is an implication on the narrative from the press release journalism at ScienceDaily quoted above, that pastoralism may have not had much of an advantage over hunting and gathering until an increasingly arid climate in the Sahara tipped the scales in favor of pastoralism. . . .

‘This date is older by more than a thousand years than the oldest reliably dated Central Saharan find of cattle bones. . . .’

The same blog comments elsewhere on the domestication of cattle as well as the domestication and cultivation of sorghum, enset and pearl millet in Africa.

Read the whole articles on the blog Dispatches from Turtle Island: North Africans consumed milk products 7 K.Y.A., 20 Ju 2012; and The oldest domesticated cattle bones in Africa, 13 Jun 2012.

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