Rock art of domesticated cattle decorates a wall at Wadi Imha in the Tadrart Acacus Mountains in the Libyan Sahara. Images like this reveal the importance of cattle to Neolithic African people. (see full image below story)

Dairy Farms Prospered in Once-Lush Sahara


Picture the Sahara desert. Now picture it filled with herders milking cattle. Hard to believe, right? New research shows that cattle, sheep and goats were roaming the green savannah about 7,000 years ago.

Rock art even depicts cows with full udders, though study research Julie Dunne, a doctoral student at the University of Bristol, said it’s difficult to date the images.

By analyzing fragments of pottery, she and colleagues have been able to determine what was once in the pots. They have determined that early African herding tribes were not only milking livestock, but also making yogurt, cheese and butter.

“The most exciting thing about this is that milk is one of the only foodstuffs that gives us carbohydrates, protein and fat,” all in one substance, Dunne told LiveScience. “So it was incredibly beneficial for prehistoric people to use milk.”

The researchers discovered that the pieces of pottery with the most dairy-fat came from the same time periods when the most cattle bones were found. They then looked at carbon molecules in the preserved fats to figure out what kind of plants the cattle were eating, which varied from woody plants to dry-weather plants.

“It suggests that they were moving between summer and winter camps and eating different plants at one place then another,” Dunne told LiveScience.

She said nobody has looked for evidence of dairy farming in herding tribes, but the agricultural lifestyle began in the Near East some 8,000 or 9,000 years ago before spreading to Europe. Cattle were then brought into Africa from the Near East.

Dunne noted though that mankind was originally lactose intolerant, so had to adapt a tolerance for dairy products.

“You’re really seeing evolution in action over a very short timescale, just 1,000 to 2,000 years,” Dunne said.

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