Give Now

A Moment of Science

Got Milk? Thank the Anatolians from 7000 BC

Scientists developed a technique to identify the residue of fats from cows' milk on ancient pieces of pottery.

Milking cows with machines

Photo: AndersP (flickr)

Extracting milk from cows has been around since 7000 BC

The average American consumes over twenty gallons of milk per year. Today cow’s milk and products made from it, such as butter, cheese and yogurt, are a regular part of the diet in most parts of the world.

But did you ever stop to wonder when and how humans started drinking cow’s milk?

We know that cows were used for milk as early as 2000 BC from artistic or written descriptions of the milking process, or from discoveries of early milk carts. But these irrefutable clues only date back 2,000 to 4,000 years after the earliest known evidence of cattle herding.  Because of this discrepancy, the prevailing hypothesis was that for a few thousand years, domesticated cattle were used only for meat and hides.

But an international team of researchers may have put this hypothesis to rest.  Scientists at the University of Bristol in England developed a technique to identify the residue of fats from cows’ milk on ancient pieces of pottery.

The team examined over 2,000 pottery shards from twenty-three different archaeological sites across the Near East and Southeastern Europe. They found milk residue on pots dating back to 7000 BC!

The oldest milk residue was discovered around ancient Anatolia, which we know as modern-day Turkey. The region may have been ideal for cattle domestication because it had higher rainfall and greener grazing needed to support cattle, compared to drier neighboring regions better suited for sheep or goats.

This is the first good proof that when humans first started herding cattle, they used the milk as well as the meat.   So next time you’re enjoying a cool drink of milk, thank the ancient Anatolians!

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science