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The origins of dairy farming

Although sheep, cattle and goats are thought to have been domesticated in parts of the Middle East and central Asia over 9,000 years ago there is no direct evidence that these animals were used to supply milk. Written texts, paintings and drawings from around 6,000 years ago provide evidence of dairy farming from then. However, analysis of dairy fat residues on pottery fragments suggests that the exploitation of animals for milk was already an established practice in Britain when farming began in the fifth millennium BC. More recent research shows that humans in north-west Anatolia (Asia Minor or Turkey) were using milk 8,000 years ago. Analysis of fat residues on sieve-like pottery structures indicates that cheese manufacture may have been practiced by Neolithic people 7,500 years ago.

The ability to digest lactose (the sugar in milk) evolved as a result of a genetic mutation among people in the Balkans and central Europe (amongst some other places) around 7,500 years ago. Descendants of these people are able to consume dairy milk today without suffering the symptoms of lactose intolerance (bloating, wind, discomfort etc). Cheese-making would have allowed the lactose-intolerant Neolithic farming communities to consume milk without becoming ill, as processing milk into cheese reduces the lactose content.

See our infographic to see a map of lactose intolerance and more about milk and health.

Although this all sounds like a long time ago, in evolutionary terms it is very recent history and early dairy farming would have been practised on a relatively small scale. Hominid (modern humans and our forerunners) fossils date back to nearly seven million years ago. If seven million years were represented as a twelve-hour clock, starting at midday, humans would have started dairy farming less than one minute before midnight.