Prehistoric dairy farming at the extremes

Finland’s love for milk has been traced as far back as 2500 BC thanks to high-tech techniques to analyse residues preserved in fragments of ancient pots.

Today, the people of Finland are the world’s biggest milk drinkers but experts had previously been unable to distinguish whether prehistoric dairy farming was possible in the harsh environment of the extreme north, where there is snow for up to four months a year.

Research conducted by the Universities of Bristol and Helsinki, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today, 30th July 2014. The research is the first of its kind to identify that dairying took place at this latitude – 60 degrees north of the equator.

This is equally as far north as Canada’s Northwestern territories, Anchorage in Alaska, Southern Greenland and near Yuktsk in Siberia.

The research team used a series of techniques, not only to analyse the ancient pots, but to also look at modern-day Finnish people’s abilities to digest milk as adults.


Through comparing the residues discovered in the walls of the cooking pots from two separate eras and cultures, dating circa 3900 BC and circa 2500 BC, it was evident that the more recent pottery fragments displayed evidence of milk fats.

This evidence coincided with the transition from a culture of hunting and fishing – relying primarily on marine food products- to the arrival of ‘Corded Ware’ settlements, which we now know saw the introduction of domesticated animals.

Finnish Landscape: WikiPedia
Finnish Landscape: WikiPedia

Lead author of the study, Dr. Lucy Cramp. From the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bristol University, said: “This is remarkable evidence which proves that four and a half thousand years ago, Stone Age people must have been foddering and sheltering domesticated animals over harsh winters, in conditions that even nowadays we would find challenging.”

The findings also found a connection between the ‘Corded Ware’ farming settlers – who most probably were genetically different to the hunting and fishing communities – and modern day Finns.

Fellow researcher Dr. Volker Heyd added: “Our results show a clear link between an incoming pre-historic population, milk drinking and the ability to digest milk in adulthood still visible in the genetic distribution of modern Finland, which remains one of the highest consumers of dairy products in the world.”

Professor Richard Evershed, from the School of Chemistry said: “It never ceases to amaze me that these sensitive chemical signatures of changing human life survive in the archaeological record for thousands of years. And it leaves one pondering what was motivating the people to move into these challenging regions?”


Contributing Source: University of Bristol

Header Image Source: Wikimedia


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