Category Archives: cattle

Was the first ever cheese from Poland?

Modern oscypki cheese from Poland
(CC by Pawel Swiegoda)

While today it is maybe France the most famed cheese-making and cheese-eating region on Earth*, we knew very little about cheese-making origins… until now.

Melanie Salque et al., Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe. Nature 2012. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1038/nature11698]
The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined1. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium bc and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’10, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids in milk1, 2, 3, 4. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers11, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities6, 7.
See also the related article by Niddhi Subamaran at Nature News and the one by Hanna Briggs at BBC News.
The dating for the cheese-making artifacts (holed pots used to press curdled milk, discarding the whey, which is a preliminary step in cheese making) is of similar age as the arrival of Neolithic itself and the first evidences of dairying in Europe and Africa. So I guess that we can conclude that farming arrived to Europe, at least to Central and Northern Europe, together with cattle herding, dairying and cheese-making.
While the potsherds are known to exist elsewhere in Central Europe, the ones analyzed for this paper are specifically from Cuyavia, Poland, which used to be the most Northeastern offshoot of the Danubian Neolithic.

Cuajada or mamia
Just one weak caveat. While Richard Evershed (in the BBC article) asks rhetorically what other milk product could it be? This question is not as trivial as it may look on first sight because there is indeed another such milk product: the cuajada (Spanish name) or mamia (Basque name) which is nothing else but the preliminary product of cheese making (curdled milk) and a much coveted delicatessen when properly made.
But, well, I guess it can be considered a form of cheese… more or less. Also real fully-processed cheese achieves a further purpose: to preserve milk (or rather key parts of it) for delayed consumption and easier transport.


* Actually Greeks eat quite more cheese per capita than the French, but they are the only ones. 


Dairying in Africa some 7000 years ago

At least.

In the prehistoric green Sahara of Holocene North Africa—in contrast to the Neolithic of Europe and Eurasia—a reliance on cattle, sheep and goats emerged as a stable and widespread way of life, long before the first evidence for domesticated plants or settled village farming communities1, 2, 3. The remarkable rock art found widely across the region depicts cattle herding among early Saharan pastoral groups, and includes rare scenes of milking; however, these images can rarely be reliably dated4. Although the faunal evidence provides further confirmation of the importance of cattle and other domesticates5, the scarcity of cattle bones makes it impossible to ascertain herd structures via kill-off patterns, thereby precluding interpretations of whether dairying was practiced. Because pottery production begins early in northern Africa6 the potential exists to investigate diet and subsistence practices using molecular and isotopic analyses of absorbed food residues7. This approach has been successful in determining the chronology of dairying beginning in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of the Near East and its spread across Europe8, 9, 10, 11. Here we report the first unequivocal chemical evidence, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major alkanoic acids of milk fat, for the adoption of dairying practices by prehistoric Saharan African people in the fifth millennium bc. Interpretations are supported by a new database of modern ruminant animal fats collected from Africa. These findings confirm the importance of ‘lifetime products’, such as milk, in early Saharan pastoralism, and provide an evolutionary context for the emergence of lactase persistence in Africa.
While there are some related articles (different author) that propose yogurt instead of milk as being the actual consumed product, this seems mostly a molecular-clock-o-logic wild speculation. Otherwise, the invention of yogurt is generally attributed to the steppe peoples (or Indians maybe) and arrived to the West only in the Middle Ages. There is no classical source discussing it at all (cheese or butter however are mentioned, as is raw milk) and instead Medieval Arab sources consider it a typical Turkish product. 
No African tradition exists of yogurt, unlike the case of butter or diverse ways of drinking raw milk, be it alone or mixed with blood.
Most likely, as in Europe and elsewhere, the relevant alleles pre-dated Neolithic changes (after all there’s no advantage in lactose intolerance, so no reason why it would have been fixated other than random drift) although they may have been somewhat favored by the development of Neolithic dairying, specially in areas where other foodstuffs were not easily available.
The archaeological site of Tadrar Acacus is at the in the Central Sahara, Fezzan region of Lybia, bordering the lands assigned to Algeria and Niger. Its chronology is illustrated in the supplemental figure 2:

click to expand
Equivalent evidence of dairying in Europe is from similar dates (or somewhat earlier in the Balcans and West Asia).

Echoes from the Past (Feb 17)

And again a quick look to many things which have been showing up around the Net these last few days:

Neanderthal society

Bryan Hayden has a very interesting (and freely accessible!) paper at the Oxford Journal of Archaeology on reconstructing Neanderthals society, which was apparently much like ours for similar conditions (small operative bands of 12-30 people linked in larger ethnic and/or clannic groups through seasonal meetings and general social networks). M. Mozota has a quite interesting review at his blog as well for those who can read in Spanish.

Natufian Mesolithic Syrian site dug

The site of As-Suwayda (or Sweida), dated to c. 14-9 thousand years ago, had 12 circular huts, two of which were more complex, suggesting to some the beginnings of social stratification (or could be communal buildings?)  The two more complex (not larger) huts were located to the south of the village and show, one, inner divisions and an internal elevated platform, and, the other, external platforms and a trench. All huts are 4-5m. round.
The Natufian culture is one of the beginnings of sedentarism, as their members lived largely on recollection of wild cereals, although it is generally understood that there was no productive agriculture yet.

Neolithic driven by aridification in South Asia

D. Fuller at Indian Ocean Corridors discusses how an increasingly drier climate may have aided the expansion of agriculture in the Indian subcontinent:

The significant aridification recorded after ca. 4,000 years ago may have spurred the widespread adoption of sedentary agriculture in central and south India capable of providing surplus food in a less secure hydroclimate.

Relevant paper: Holocene aridification of India (C. Ponton et al. 2012, PPV)

Chalcolithic oxen traction in Iberia

A very interesting article in Spanish language by J.M. Arévalo discusses the use of animal traction in the Chalcolithic of Mucientes in the Northern Iberian Plateau during the 3rd millennium BCE (c. 2830-2290 BCE). Article available at Periodista Digital[es] and Asociación los Dólmenes[es].
The production, use and export of threshing teeth, made on flintstone at Cantalejo, emphasizes the almost necessary use of ox traction (horse domestication is unclear for the period while oxen remains are consistent with such kind of work). Interestingly the article is accompanied by an image of what may well be the oldest preserved wheel in Europe (Ljubljana, 4th millennium BCE, many centuries before Indoeuropean arrival, pictured).
Other archaeology/prehistory
Nerja rock art will be directly dated: the calcite layer over them will be dated so the doubts on authorship may be clarified. ··> Pileta[es].

East Asturian Magdalenian cave sites Tito Bustillo and El Buxu were used by the same group ··> Pileta[es].

Rock art found at Paleoindian site in Clarke Co., Virginia (USA) ··> Clarke Daily News.

England’s Neolithic submerged town had market street ··> BBC

The IVC seal represents a goat

Rare Indus Valley Civilization seal found at Cholistan (Punjab) ··> Dawn.

20 megalithic cairn circles and an apparent fortification from the Iron Age found at Andrah Pradesh, India ··> Firstpost.

Conservation plan to protect the Hill of Tara (Ireland) ··> The Meath Chronicle.

Spanish language specialized open access e-magazine Trabajos de Prehistoria vol. 68, no. 2 is available.

Human genetics

You may want to take a look at the latest exploration of Northern Europe’s autosomal genetics by Fennoscandia Biographic Project, using the most advanced analysis tools available (it seems): as always Scandinavians are somewhat distinct within Western Europe but Finnic peoples are a world on their own.

Other genetics

Rice varieties indica and japonica may have been independently domesticated (paper): Independent Domestication of Asian Rice Followed by Gene Flow from japonica to indica (Chin-chia Yang et al. at MBE, PPV).

Aurochs mtDNA in Italian cattle

Aurochs fighting wolves by H. Harder
The same as Neanderthals did not completely go extinct but live in us (albeit in very small apportion), another magnificent creature from old also survived extinction by means of hybridization.
Mitochondrial DNA haplogroups known to be from ancient aurochs, whose last known representative died in 1627, have been discovered in Italian cattle, amounting to as much as 1.5% of the sampled individuals.
The lineages belong to three haplogroups: P, Q and R. P and Q had already been sequenced in pre-Neolithic European bovines (aurochs) but so far no P had been detected among modern cattle (in this case only one individual). A novel haplogroup, R, was also sequenced in several animals and, because of its even more archaic phylogeny, it is also believed to be an aurochs and not a domestic lineage.

Fig. 2 full Q, P and R sequences, including one from a British aurochs (18)


French cattle genetics

This is a new paper that may provide some insight into cattle genetics. However, while Zebuine breeds are widely sampled, European breeds other than French (and a handful of NW European, Swiss and Italian breeds) are not, what makes more difficult to make a comprehensive assessment.

Mathieu Gautier et al, Insights into the Genetic History of French Cattle from Dense SNP Data on 47 Worldwide Breeds. PLoS ONE 2010. Open access.

Unsupervised hierarchical clustering of the 1,121 individuals genotyped for 44,706 SNPs

Legend is found at supplementary table S1 (download).

It is interesting that even at K=47 some populations still do cluster, a sign of a very intense relatedness that in some cases may be obvious (Angus varieties, Holstein from Europe and America) but in others maybe not so much.

If we stop at K=5 or K=6 we can appreciate three basic groups in Europe (taurine breeds):

The orange cluster includes most French and Swiss breeds (partial exceptions found only in the NW) and even permeates somewhat into England (Hereford) and Norway. It also includes Italian and Moroccan breeds, even if these have something of zebu. The purest representative is the Blond d’Aquitaine.

Blond d’Aquitaine

Excepting the Brown Swiss, the homogeneity of the main part of this cluster is maintained still at K=10, clearly suggesting a common origin for southern and  eastern French cattle, including North Italian breeds

The yellow cluster has Holstein as only pure representative but makes up the largest part, or at least a sizable fraction, of NW European cattle, from the Loire to Norway. Next to Holstein in purity is Angus, a Scottish breed.

Holstein-Frisian cattle

At K=10, Angus and Hereford already display their unique personalities anyhow, suggestive of an early divergence, possibly within the British Neolithic, a relatively late phenomenon, while the other NW European breeds, continental, still look “hybrid” instead.

The small green cluster is restricted to the Jersey breed.

Jersey cattle

The non-European or zebuine components don’t show but a cline across Africa, with extremes in West Africa and India. Plus the distinct Lagune breed from Benin. This pattern remains pretty much the same at K=10.

The two rightmost breeds are modern North American taurine-zebuine hybrids. At K=10 it is apparent the dominance of Hereford and Angus components in each but at lower K levels they look identical. However at K=47 they appear as totally distinct clusters each on their own right, probably because of extreme inbreeding.

Back to European breeds, the authors speculate somewhat with a dual Mediterranean and Danubian Neolithic origins but the stop short of proclaiming any theory because they have to admit that their sampling is too limited for anything like that.

I must say that I know of no archaeological record of any cattle (Bos sp.) being associated with Mediterranean Neolithic (Cardium Pottery). This culture was specialized in fishing and ovicaprids, probably with some pigs too (and, of course, cereals, pulses and olives), not bovine cattle. But I’m not really sure how cattle was incorporated into these areas’ economy, what certainly happened by Chalcolithic times at least, when bulls become a popular artistic and maybe religious motif in south Iberia (competing with deer, sometimes up to the point of transforming an animal into the other).

What seems pretty apparent is that a Chassey-La Lagozza (proto-Ligurian?) Chalcolithic origin can be speculated for this cluster. A lot should depend on Balcanic, Central European and Iberian affinities or differences, not considered here, but I can already say that the Blond d’Aquitaine looks similar to the usual montane Basque types, such as the Betizu, though these are usually reddish in color and have somewhat larger and often characteristically-shaped horns.

Betizu, typical Basque cow