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Finnish milk consumption traced back 4,500 years

By Mark Astley+

01-Aug-2014
Last updated on 01-Aug-2014 at 17:12 GMT2014-08-01T17:12:27Z

Finnish milk consumption traced back 4,500 years

British and Finnish scientists have uncovered evidence of milk consumption in Finland as far back as 2500 BC, by analyzing fragments of prehistoric pottery.

Using techniques to analyze resides preserved in sherds - ancient fragments of pottery - scientists from Bristol University in England and the University of Helsinki in Finland tested a hypothesis that Neolithic farming was practiced beyond the sixtieth parallel - the circle of latitude that passes through Finland, Alaska, and Siberia.

Milk consumption per capita in Finland in 2006, according to the Finnish Dairy Nutrition Council, was 138 liters - making Finns the greatest consumers of milk worldwide.

Despite the country's long love of milk, experts have struggled to establish whether prehistoric dairy farming was possible in the country, where it can snow for up to four months of the year.

To test their aforementioned theory, the Bristol University and the University of Helsinki researchers tested 70 sherds - some dating from between 3900 BC and 3300 BC and others from circa 2500 BC.

"Well-preserved lipids" were found in many of the more recent 4,500-year old samples of pottery.

“Our findings, based on diagnostic biomarker lipids and stable carbon isotope composition values of preserved fatty acids, reveal a transition at circa 2500 BC from the exploitation of aquatic organisms to processing of ruminant products, specifically milk, confirming farming was practiced at high latitudes," said the study, published earlier this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Combining this with genetic environmental and archaeological information, we demonstrate the origins of dairying probably accompanied an incoming, genetically distinct, population successfully establishing this new subsistence ‘package’.”

Lead author of the study, Dr Lucy Camp, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, Bristol University, branded the team's findings "remarkable."

"This is remarkable evidence which proves that four and a half thousand years ago, Stone Age people must have been foddering and sheltering domesticate animals over harsh winters, in conditions that even nowadays we would find challenging," said Camp.

Bristol University's Dr Volker Heyd, a co-author of the study, meanwhile noted the "clear link" between the findings and Finland's high frequency of lactase persistence (LP) among adults.

“Our results show a clear link between an incoming prehistoric population, milk drinking and the ability to digest milk in adulthood still visible in the generic distribution of modern Finland, which remains one of the highest consumers of dairy products in the world,” said Heyd.

Title: Neolithic dairy farming at the extreme of agriculture in northern Europe
Source: The Proceedings of the Royal Society B  10.1098/rspb.2014.0819
Authors: Lucy Cramp, Richard Evershed, Mika Lavento, Petri Halinen, Kristiina Mannermaa, Markku Oinonen, Johannes Kettunen , Markus Perola, Päivi Onkamo, Volker Heyd