Teeth: The Window to the Past

In general, the Neolithic Period is universally known to mark the rise of crop farming and animal domestication, activities not many modern day people can relate to. However, what most do not know is that we share a vital part of our lives with these prehistoric people: the consumption of milk.

A study conducted by the University of York has revealed new evidence that proposes milk consumption to have dated back over 6,000 years ago (Garner 2014). The University’s team obtained the teeth of ten Neolithic Britons from three different areas of southern England and analyzed their calcified dental plaque (Ewbank 2019). Through mass spectrometry and proteomic analysis, archaeologists found traces of beta lactoglobulin, a protein found in animal milk, in seven of these British farmers’ enamel, making this the earliest known evidence of humanity’s milk consumption (Solly 2019).

Figure 1: University of York scientists preparing a plaque sample (David 2019).

Figure 2: plaque on teeth being analyzed for milk proteins (Gramling 2019).

The importance of this find lies in its support of earlier claims and in its help in depicting the conditions of the Neolithic Period in the area now known as England. For one, since the ten Neolithic farmers who produced the dental plaque came from three different sites as opposed to just one, York’s archaeologists could safely conclude that dairy consumption was more widespread than originally thought without “[making] assumptions based on [their] own experience” (Renfrew and Bahn 2018). In addition, pottery priorly found by archaeologists already suggested that humans had consumed milk products, but direct evidence linking human ingestion of this milk was lacking. However, because teeth normally survive in good condition, scientists have been able to directly trace dairy consumption to humans with this new evidence, proving a cultural pattern that had long been unsupported. Furthermore, these farmers seem to precede the era in which humans began to be able to digest lactose; most people in southern England during the Neolithic Period were lactose intolerant (Solly 2019). However, because of the beta lactoglobulin found along the teeth, it can be inferred that these Neolithic farmers either drank their milk in small increments or somehow manipulated it for easier consumption (i.e. processing it into cheese, yogurt, etc). Thus, the dental evidence shows the conditions of part of these Neolithic farmers’ diets and how they adapted to their environment.

In essence, the unique preservational characteristics of teeth have lead archaeologists to consider the past’s relationship with milk in a new way. Therefore, the dental remains of these farmers gives us more insight about Neolithic life; in relation to curating archaeological records, teeth function as a window to the past.

 

Reference List:

 

Ewbank, Anne

2019 Found: The Earliest Direct Evidence of Milk Consumption. Electronic document, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/when-did-humans-start-drinking-milk, accessed September 28, 2019. 

 

Garner, David

2014 Ancient Dental Plaque: A “Whey” Into Our Milk Drinking Past. Electronic document, https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2014/research/ancient-dental-plaque/, accessed September 28, 2019. 

 

Renfrew, Colin, and Bahn, Paul

2018 How Were Societies Organized?. In Archaeology Essentials(Theories/Methods/Practice), Thames & Hudson. Fourth ed. 

 

Solly, Meilan

2019 Prehistoric Farmers’ Teeth Show Humans Were Drinking Animal Milk 6,000 Years Ago. Electronic document, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/prehistoric-farmers-teeth-show-humans-were-drinking-animal-milk-6000-years-ago-180973101/, accessed September 28, 2019.

Images:

Figure 1:

Garner, David

2014 Ancient Dental Plaque: A “Whey” Into Our Milk Drinking Past. Electronic document, https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2014/research/ancient-dental-plaque/, accessed September 28, 2019. 

Figure 2:

Gramling, Carolyn
2019 Tooth Plaque Shows Drinking Milk Goes Back 3,000 Years in Mongolia. Electronic document, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/tooth-plaque-shows-drinking-milk-goes-back-3000-years-mongolia, accessed September 29, 2019.

Further Reading:

To read more on material evidence of milk consumption:

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/09/25/764243209/prehistoric-babies-drank-animal-milk-from-a-bottle

To read more on the science of beta lactoglobulin and how it is used in archaeology:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/beta-lactoglobulin

One thought on “Teeth: The Window to the Past

  1. This is a cool blog post that links both archaeology and biological anthropology in an interesting way. How else have archaeologists used dental remains to learn more about the past? Because food remains are organic and do not tend to survive the test of time, what ways can archaeology be used to learn more about diets in the past?

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