01 October 2019
Ancient teeth provide evidence of milk consumption

Archaeologists from the University of York have found the earliest direct evidence of milk consumption anywhere in the world in the teeth of prehistoric British farmers.

The team identified a milk protein called beta lactoglobulin (BLG) in the mineralised dental plaque of seven individuals who lived in the Neolithic period around 6,000 years ago.

The human dental plaque samples in the study are the oldest to be analysed for ancient proteins to date globally, and the study represents the earliest identification of the milk whey protein BLG so far.

Evidence was found of 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 yet 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).

Archaeologist Dr Sophy Charlton commented, “Identifying more ancient individuals with evidence of BLG in the future may provide further insights into milk consumption and processing in the past, and increase our understanding of how genetics and culture have interacted to allow humans to consume milk into adulthood.”

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