June 20, 2012

Dairying in Africa some 7000 years ago

At least.


Abstract

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).

10 comments:

  1. The African data seem to point pretty clearly to pastoralism long preceding horticulture there. I don't recall evidence for such a stark distinction in Europe. Am I misreading the European data, or is this a real and strong distinction?

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    1. Maybe you are reading too much in the available African data. AFAIK, Mesolithic cereal gathering is as old or even older in Nubia than in West Asia, what may explain the presence of E1b1b in the earliest Neolithic peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean.

      Later, agriculture was probably limited to the Nile banks (which have not kept much evidence because or yearly sedimentation), oases and NW Africa, where it may have arrived separately across the Mediterranean (Cardium Pottery).

      It's very possible that the Pluvial Saharan steppe was not too appropriate for farming but notice that African archaeology is comparatively underdeveloped and that detecting vegetable seeds and such requires a much more detailed and advanced approach than finding animal bones.

      But you are not wrong re. Europe: the two "branches" of Neolithic are found together almost everywhere.

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  2. "Mesolithic cereal gathering is as old or even older in Nubia than in West Asia, what may explain the presence of E1b1b in the earliest Neolithic peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean."

    Fair point and on the genetic score, I think you might very well be right.

    But, gathering wild cereals doesn't support nearly the population density that farming domesticated cereals does, and you would think that domesticated cereals ought to thrive in more or less the same ecologies where wild cereals do. Also, if Fertile Crescent domesticates were used, there wouldn't be the long lag time between cultivation and morphologically domesticated strains that you see in places where the transition from proto-farming to farming takes place originally - and the native cereals that were gathered pre-Neolithiic (e.g., wild sorghum and pearl millet) would be entirely different species than the ones that were introduced as part of the Fertile Crescent package (various kinds of wheat and barley). It ought to be pretty hard to miss a transition from wild cereal gathering to farming cereals domesticated in the Fertile Crescent that one might expect to have accompanied Southwest Asian domesticated animals in the archaeological record. There should suddenly be much more intense settlement, grainaries, much less diverse flora in refuse piles and abandoned storage areas, cultivation related tools, and probably related art. (Flour, however, is a false friend that does not imply cultivation of crops, since cereals were ground into flour as early as 30kya or more, from wild gathered cereals in both Europe and upon arrival in the New World and in Mesolithic Africa.) Logically, it ought to be on the North African coast, in the highlands of North Africa, around Lake Chad and other now dried up Lake Basins of the Sahara, and in the Nile Basin. Herding alone, however, wouldn't leave nearly as heavy of a footprint, particularly if it were nomadic pastoralism.

    Yet, in the Middle Nile which has the oldest archaeological record (in part because money was spent to preserve that record before it was submerged under Lake Nassar), you don't see Fertile Crescent domesticates until long after there is irrefutable evidence of the herding of animals domesticated in the Fertile Crescent (one can make a case, although I think it is weak, for local domestication of cows, but not for the local domestication of sheep and goats which are present well before the appearance in the archaeological record of the Middle Nile of any Fertile Crescent domesticated plants, such as barley which appears something like one thousand to two thousand years later). Mesolithic and early Neolithic cereal gathering was of wild African cereals that were not found in West Asia until much later (not sooner than about 4kya), not Fertile Crescent source cereals.

    Sure, there are huge regions where there simply is no archaelogy that has been done. But, there are pretty continuous series of data in the Middle Nile, Fezzan, Chad Basin and Morocco, and patchy archaeology at scores of other North African sites, and you'd think somethat so dramatic would show up in at least a couple of them, and would see evidence of trade for these crops among pure pastoralist populations. The Fezzan may have never been a good place to grew Fertile Crescent crops, but the North African coast was the bread basket of the Roman Empire, would have been more favorable for cultivation 7kya, and has had more than minimal archaeological exploration.

    This is really quite mysterious, because farmers and seeds are easier to send by boat than domesticated animals, and there is no good reason that I can see why the Cardium Pottery or the equivalent shouldn't have spread along the North African coast just as it did in Southern Europe. This is very much a dog that didn't bark mystery.

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    1. "But, gathering wild cereals doesn't support nearly the population density that farming domesticated cereals does"...

      I feel that in the first Neolithic millennia there was not such a radical difference between one economy and the other, depending maybe on local circumstances. There was some study on this regard, but find it now!

      Late hunter-gathering such as that styled in Magdalenian or Epi-Magdalenian contexts (or in Nubian or Anatolian Mesolithic) was highly efficient in most cases, while early farming or even pastoralism was surely not that efficient. After all we have to reckon that the even fields rotation, never mind heavy plough or horse traction... are all Medieval or at the very least Iron Age developments and that early farming with their slash and burn techniques could only get so much productivity after all.

      Re. the rest, I remain thinking that the archaeological research in Africa is still very weak relative to that of Europe (or even West Asia) and that the peculiar conditions (heavy sedimentation in the Nile banks and movings sands and difficult access in the desert) make very difficult proper research even if the means would be there. Never mind that the funds are more into pharaohs than early anarchist(?) farmers.

      I have no idea why you say that Lake Nasser inundation was of any help in researching the Neolithic. AFAIK not a single piece of info comes from there in fact but from other sites.

      "This is really quite mysterious, because farmers and seeds are easier to send by boat than domesticated animals, and there is no good reason that I can see why the Cardium Pottery or the equivalent shouldn't have spread along the North African coast just as it did in Southern Europe".

      Actually it did (at the very least Northern Morocco, where it "bounced" before arriving to SW Iberia AFAIK) but most NW African Neolithic is what the call Capsian Neolithic (emphasizing continuity with Late UP cultures). However I have not read enough to judge as you do (or in the opposite direction). My real question is how much do you know of Capsian Neolithic and Cardium Pottery in NW Africa that enables you to issue these judgments?

      My feeling is that you just do not have even an approximate idea and are judging on first impressions alone. So I cannot accept your opinion because I feel it's too shallow, even if I cannot refute it either as of now.

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    2. "I have no idea why you say that Lake Nasser inundation was of any help in researching the Neolithic. AFAIK not a single piece of info comes from there in fact but from other sites."

      When I was doing some recent posts on the domestication of cattle and sorghum, as I read papers on the archaeology of the Middle Nile, almost all of them expressly credited their funding to this source or were described in secondary sources as having been funded for that reason. Half a dozen of the big names in Egyptian archaeology made their professional names in that wave of research. Not all of the relevant sites were innundated and the new research obviously concerns those sites nearby that were not, but a fair number were.

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    3. Aha, thanks for that info, Adrew. I was not aware. I'm in fact not familiar with any Neolithic sites in the Nasser reservoir but it's very possible that they were founded by the same foundation even if they dug elsewhere.

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  3. One doesn't have to "invent" yogurt. It invents itself
    According to wikipedia: The milk is first heated to about 80 °C (176 °F) to kill any undesirable bacteria and to denature the milk proteins so that they set together rather than form curds. The milk is then cooled to about 45 °C (112 °F). [2] The bacteria culture is added, and the temperature is maintained for 4 to 7 hours to allow fermentation.
    So heat some milk set it aside.In a warm climate you will soon get a culture growing.
    After X repetitions you will get a taste you find pleasant.

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    1. When I was a kid, we used to make home-made yogurt, which is actually much tastier than most commercial ones, there were some yogurt-making machines back in the day which basically just kept the milk warm while the yogurt was being made. But we still needed seed of the original bacterial cultivation (which we took from commercial yogurts in fact).

      However the distinct yogurt-making bacteria (L. bulgaricus), according to that same Wikipedia article, has a likely origin in the surface of a plant. It was probably by adding such plant to the milk that, in certain conditions of warmth, yogurt was first produced. Some traditional yogurt dishes have certain vegetables in them and it's possible this was the original way yogurt formed: preparing some sort of milk-and-veggies dish.

      Historically there's no reference of yogurt in Europe before the Middle Ages and generally in connection with Turkic or Iranian peoples. There is also no historical reference nor preserved tradition of yogurt-making in Africa either (instead other traditions like beer-making are still well preserved). Whether the dish is originally Turkic or Indian, I can't say, but it's certainly not deeply rooted in European nor much less African traditions.

      Nor I think we can say that yogurt "makes itself", unless the culture has been added first.

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  4. @Maju,

    Another site to check out:

    http://new-indology.blogspot.com/2012/04/wonderful-adventures-of-bos-indicus.html

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