Finnish ancestors were milk-drinkers

31 July 2014

A report published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveals that our prehistoric predecessors may have been dairy farming 4500 years ago; much earlier than previously thought.

By analysing the traces of food left caked in ancient pottery, researchers have revealed that Neolithic settlers in Finland may have been consuming dairy foods as early as 2500 BC.

Since the end of the last Ice Age 12000 years ago northern latitudes have been settled by humans. For millennia these people survived on fishing, hunting and gathering. Early Neolithic settlers in Northern Europe had begun establishing farming economies across Britain and southern Norway, thanks to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. However, some researchers doubt whether further North in Finland, where the climate was more extreme, farming was being practised as early.

The researchers behind this paper set out to establish the diets of early Finnish cultures by analysing preserved lipid molecules caked onto pottery recovered from sites in Finland. The pottery includes piece of Comb Ware pots from around 3900-3300 BC, Corded Ware vessels from around 2500 BC, Kiukainen ceramics from between 1500 and 2300 BC and Early Metal Age pottery from 1200-500 BC. By analysing food residues left embedded in the pottery the team can determine what sorts of diets these Neolithic cultures may have had.

Analysing lipid molecules obtained from fragments of the ancient pottery the team found that the diet of the earliest culture they investigated likely contained significant amounts of fish. The team say these Combed Ware peoples were probably surviving on a hunting-fishing-foraging type diet and making use of plentiful natural resources. The food residues recovered from pottery from the next era, the Corded Ware culture, contained signatures of fats from land-based animals and dairy. Immigrating Corded Ware people brought with them their farming culture and domesticated animals for their milk and meat.

The next culture, the Kiukainen, showed some signs the hunter-fisher-forager lifestyle similar to their Combed Ware processors. The lipids they analysed from Kiukainen wares suggested both marine and terrestrial fats in the same crockery. The results suggest that either the Kiukainen’s reintroduced fish to their diets or that they were using the same pots for both fish and meat. Reverting back to fishing could have been the result of fluctuating or deteriorating climate that could have scuppered an early farming system which at this Northern latitude was vulnerable. By the time the Early Metal Age came about people were again eating dairy fats show the team’s results.

This if the ‘first direct evidence that animal domestication, specifically including dairy production, was practiced by early prehistoric farmers’ so far North say the team,  pushing back the date for domestication to around 2500 BC.