People living in the extremes of northern Europe started farming dairy cows at least 4500 years ago, despite the ground being covered with snow for up to a third of the year.
That’s the conclusion UK and Finnish scientists reached after they found milk fats on pottery fragments from archaeological sites in south and southwest Finland.
It’s the earliest evidence that people living north of 60 degrees latitude drank milk.
At this time, much of Finland would have been under a deep layer of snow for up to four months of a year. Any vegetation would have been beyond the reach of dairy animals. And in bad years, even the summers could be punctuated by freezing cold snaps.
‘We thought our ancestors would have supported themselves with locally-available natural resources, because feeding your own animals in freezing cold winters would’ve been challenging to say the least,’ says Dr Lucy Cramp of the University of Bristol, lead author of the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The findings tie up with genetic studies, which show that the Finns’ ability to digest milk goes back millennia.
‘The Finns are the biggest milk drinkers in the world. This is reflected in their genetics – those living in the western and southern parts have got the highest incidence of the lactase persistence allele which means they can digest the milk sugar lactose,’ says Cramp. ‘It shows what a critical staple it was to their diet.’
After the last Ice Age ended around 12,000 years ago, people settling in the northern extremes of Europe would have supported themselves by hunting, fishing and gathering nuts and berries. About 6000 years later, ancient Britons stopped relying on seafood and switched to dairy farming.
Although dairy farming was firmly established in parts of Europe 4500 years ago, Scandinavia’s harsh climate suggested that feeding cows might have been too difficult for it to have become established there. Not just that, but there’s no evidence for farming in countries at similar latitudes – above 60 degrees – such as Alaska or Siberia.
‘Dairy farming is thought to have originated 11,000 years ago in the Near East, where it’s considerably warmer than Finland was 4500 years ago,’ says Cramp.
‘Many scientists have long-doubted if our Finnish ancestors could have supported dairy farming. But Europe has the Gulf Stream, which keeps it relatively warm, so there was always the possibility,’ she adds.
The acidic soils of southern Finland means few archaeological artefacts remain, bar cooking pots and a few charred animal bones.
But, as luck would have it, the conditions that stop ancient bones surviving also preserve animal fats that stick within the walls of cooking pots.
After analysing 70 pottery fragments from various sites across south and southwest Finland, the researchers managed to recover 19 fat samples that were well preserved enough to analyse in more detail. The fragments come from sites spanning 6000 years ago to 3000 years ago.
Earlier fragments only showed evidence of marine fats, likely from cooked fish or mammals such as seals. But the researchers found clear evidence of milk fats in so-called Corded Ware pottery remains, which date back to around 4500 years ago. Some of these fragments came from sites less than 2km from the coast.
Pottery from later cultures – Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age – only revealed dairy fats.
‘We see a switch from marine sustenance to dairy about 4500 years ago, which in some places is a surprise, because the sea is such a rich source of food,’ says Cramp.
But Cramp and her colleagues also found very occasional evidence of marine fats on the Corded Ware fragments, suggesting our ancestors still relied on fishing for at least some of the time, possibly to soften the effects of the harsh climate.
Once established, dairy products remained an important food source in much of Europe. But it seems that the rest of Scandinavia continued to rely on fishing for extra food alongside dairy farming and crops.
Source: NERC Science of the Environment