Pastoralism is the practice of keeping and herding animals such as cattle, goats and sheep, and using the products they produce, including meat, hide, bone, horn and of course, dairy. In the old days, armchair archaeologists thought that pastoralism would have been a phase of cultural adaptation following hunting and gathering and preceding horticulture (the growing of plant crops). Why did they think that? No really good reason, just a guess. However, over time evidence came along and ideas where altered and minds were changed and now it is generally thought that in Europe and West Asia horticulture cam along about 12,000 years ago and less (depending on where you are) and much later than that, pastoralism started to be practiced.
However, in Africa, things were different in two major ways. First, more so than Europe (though it happened there as well) we find mixed strategies going on side by side in Africa. This is true even today. Not only might we find foragers living near pastoral people living near tourist hotels, but people may move between these culturally and economically distinct lifestyles. N!xau, the actor who played the lead in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” was at the time the first movie was filmed living a forager living among one of the groups studied by anthropologists in the 1960s. I’ve heard that his father worked for pastoral farmers and a hotel, and the actor himself became a farmer after Gods II.
Historically we now think that pastoralism arose in many areas of Africa before horticulture. It is probably more complicated than that. The total number of relevant archaeological sties excavated in the entire region of the Sahara and Sub Saharan Africa (so, let’s not count the upper Nile and the Mediterranean coast because of the intensity of European based work there) is probably far less than the number of sites excavated in Israel, Lebanon Syria, the Sinai, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, yet these countries combined represent a tiny fraction of the land area of Africa. So, don’t be surprised if an agricultural hearth or two turn up in Africa predating the earliest pastoral manifestations. But at the moment, pastoralism is early in Africa and predated Horticulture.
But what about dairy specifically? There is a new study that shows that the use of milk in the Sahara emerges as early as 5,200 BC, which is quite early.
This work uses the occurrence of organic material found in pottery that can be extracted and characterized using gas chromatography-mass spectrommetry (C-MS) and chromotography-combustion-isotope ratio mass spec (CG-C-IRMS). Lipids, which are preserved for very long periods of time, can be characterized using these methods in ways that allow inference about their origins and the way they are processed.
Bottom line: Lipids are found in many pottery sample (a larger proportion than one usually finds) excavated from the Takarkori rock shelter located in the southwest Fezzan, Libyan Sahara. Early pottery has a range of lipids including non-domestic animals. However, lipids indicating the production of dairy products from cattle show up in the samples dated to the “Middle Pastoral” (5200-3800 bc).
From the paper:
Of the 29 animal fat residues selected for GC–C–IRMS analyses, 22 originate from Middle Pastoral levels, 3 from the Late Acacus, 2 from the Early Pastoral and the remaining 2 from the Late Pastoral period … The comparison of the Δ13C values of the modern reference animal fats with those of the archaeological pottery residues from the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200–3800 BC) show that 50% of these plot within, or on the edge of, the isotopic ranges for dairy fats, with a further 33% falling within the range for ruminant adipose fats and the remainder corresponding to non-ruminant carcass fats … Notably, the residues originating from earlier periods do not contain dairy fats, and plot in the non-ruminant fat range, probably deriving from wild fauna found locally. The unambiguous conclusion is that the appearance of dairy fats in pottery correlates with the more abundant presence of cattle bones in the cave deposits, suggesting a full pastoral economy as the cattle were intensively exploited for their secondary products.
Our findings provide unequivocal evidence for extensive processing of dairy products in pottery vessels in the Libyan Sahara during the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200–3800 BC), confirming that milk played an important part in the diet of these prehistoric pastoral people.
Dunne, Julie, Evershed, Richard, Salque, Melanie, Cramp, Lucy, Bruni, Silvia, Ryan, Kathleen, Biagettti, Stefano, & di Lernia, Savino (2012). First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium bc Nature, 486, 390-394
Photo of cattle by angies