April 27 (UPI) -- The University of York unveiled a study Saturday that tracks the use of dairy products by the first farmers who settled across the western portion of Europe bordering the Atlantic Ocean.
Researchers traced the shift from hunter-gatherer practices to early farming practices over 1,500 years, the University of York statement shows. To analyze this change, the scientists examined molecular food remains left in pottery that the first farmers to settle in Western Europe used 7,000 to 6,000 years ago.
They found evidence of dairy in most pottery fragments from the area that is now Britain and Ireland. However, dairy farming on the Southern Atlantic Coast was less cow-based as sheep and goats were used instead for meat and milk, according to research published Saturday in Nature Communications.
Authors suggested that early dairy farming was more prevalent in the Northern latitudes because the harsher climate may have increased need for the nutritional benefits of milk, such as Vitamin D and fat.
"Latitudinal differences in the scale of dairy production might also be important for understanding the evolution of adult lactase persistence across Europe," study senior author Oliver Craig, archaeology professor at University of York, said in a statement. "Today, the genetic change that allows adults to digest the lactose in milk is at much higher frequency in Northwestern Europeans than their southern counterparts."
The research team analyzed organic residue of 246 pottery fragments in 24 Early Neolithic sites between Portugal and Normandy, as well as the Western Baltic, for the study. Despite proximity to the shoreline, researchers surprisingly found little evidence for marine foods except in the Western Baltic.
"This surprising discovery could mean that many prehistoric farmers shunned marine foods in favor of dairy, but perhaps fish and shellfish were simply processed in other ways," said Miriam Cubas, lead author of the paper. "Our study is one of the largest regional comparisons of early pottery use. It has shed new light on the spread of early farming across Atlantic Europe and showed that there was huge variety in the ways early farmers lived."
"These results help us to gain more of an insight into the lives of people living during this process of momentous change in culture and lifestyle -- from hunter-gatherer to farming," Cubas said.