Neolithic milk drinkers and meat eaters


A large study has shown widely differentiated diets among the populations of farmers and ranchers in Western Europe 7,500 years ago.

Meat in the south, milk in the north! It is the astonishing fracture line drawn by a five-year study that focused on the evolution of food consumption patterns among the populations of farmers and breeders who arrived in western Europe 7,500 years ago.

The study was based on the molecular analysis of food residues stored in more than 246 potteries collected from 24 excavation sites spread across the European seaboard from the Iberian Peninsula to the Western Baltic, as reported in the journal Current Anthropology.

The study was led by Miriam Cubas Morena, prehistorian of the universities of York (United Kingdom) and Oviedo (Spain) who examined the traces of lipids (fats) consumed by these first agro-pastoral populations. The residues of dairy products (cheeses, fresh cheeses, etc.) have been found to be particularly frequent in pottery from the British Isles, France, and the West Baltic.

They are rarer in what is now Spain and Portugal, which suggests that goats (sheep and goats) were raised there preferably for their meat. Milk consumption was much lower than in higher latitudes, in Ireland, Great Britain, and Normandy: an unexpected finding.

„Neolithic farmers who colonized the harsher northern regions may have found the nutritional benefits they needed in cow’s milk, rich in vitamin D and fat,“ says Gregor Marchand, prehistorian, CNRS research director and teacher at Rennes-I University, co-signer of the article.

The authors also believe that these dietary differences could explain why the tolerance of adults to lactose is today higher among the populations of northern Europe than among those of the south.

Even more astonishing, the culinary residues of the Neolithic gave little evidence of the consumption of food of marine origin in littoral zones where the sea provided abundant resources. Nevertheless, the researchers remain cautious: „In the Atlantic regions, the marine resources may have been transformed by other cooking methods“, and their trace is lost, explains Gregor Marchand.