Residues of milk fat on pottery indicate that Africans in what is now the Sahara desert were milking cows and processing the milk into cheese, yogurt and other products 7,000 years ago, European researchers reported Thursday. Ancient rock art throughout the region shows herds of cattle and even people milking them, but dating the art has been a problem. The new evidence provides the first reliable date for how long the practice of dairying has been carried out in the region.
The new data were reported in the journal Nature by a team headed by chemist Richard P. Evershed of the University of Bristol in England. They extracted organic molecules known to be present in milk and used radiocarbon dating to determine their age. His team had previously used the technique to date dairying to 9,000 years ago in the Near East, to 8,000 years ago in eastern Europe and to 6,000 years ago in Britain.
About 10,000 years ago, the Sahara was a wetter, greener place. Hunter-gatherers living in the area lived part time in settlements, used pottery, hunted wild game and collected wild cereal grains. As the region began to dry out, the early inhabitants were forced to adopt a more nomadic lifestyle and cattle herding became a more important part of their lifestyle.