Washington: The sandy dunes may have made the Sahara a desolate desert now, but about 7,000 years ago, it was full of greenery that hosted early African dairy farms, according to a new research.
A team from University of Bristol, who analysed fossilised bones and colourful rock art discovered there, found that by the sixth millennium BC (or about 7,000 years ago), cattle, sheep and goats roamed over green savanna.
By analysing pottery fragments, Dunne and her colleagues have now shown that these early herders were not only milking their livestock, but also processing that milk into products like yogurt, cheese and butter.
"The most exciting thing about this is that milk is one of the only foodstuffs that gives us carbohydrates, protein and fat," all in one substance, Dunne told LiveScience.
"So it was incredibly beneficial for prehistoric people to use milk."
Dunne and her colleagues analysed tiny fragments of pottery taken from the Takarkori rock shelter, a prehistoric dwelling in the Libyan Sahara.
They ground up small pieces of the pottery, conducting chemical analyses to investigate the proteins and fats embedded in the shards.
By doing so, the researchers could see what the pots once held. They found evidence of a varied diet, with signs found for plant oils and animal fat.
The most common fats were from animals, Dunne said, with some deriving from flesh and others from milk.
The most dairy-fat rich pottery shards came from the same time periods when more cattle bones are found in the cave layers, the researchers reported in the journal Nature.
By looking at variations in the carbon molecules in these preserved fats, the researchers were able to get an idea of what kind of plants the cattle were eating.
They found their diets varied between so-called C3, or woody plants, and C4 plants, which include grasses grains and dry-weather plants.
That fits with the archaeological understanding of this early herding civilisation as moving between seasonal camps, Dunne said.
"It suggests that they were moving between summer and winter camps and eating different plants at one place than another, so this all ties together very nicely," she said.
No one has ever before looked for evidence of dairy farming in these herding tribes, Dunne said, but the new findings help explain how humans got their taste for milk.
People first settled down to an agricultural lifestyle in the Near East about 8,000 or 9,000 years ago, she said.
Soon after, they took up dairy farming.
The milk habit then spread across Europe in fits and starts.
At the same time, though, people were also migrating from the Near East into what is now Egypt and other parts of Africa, and this movement spread dairying to north Africans, who were previously settled hunter-gatherers and fishermen, Dunne said.
As new immigrants moved in with cattle, these native people would have quickly seen the benefits of "marvellous big hunks of food on the hoof," she added.
The researchers now plan to analyse more pottery samples from more northern African dwellings.
The goal, Dunne said, is to get a better picture of how dairy ? and cows ? spread among the people of the continent.
Cattle "really played an enormous part in their ideology and their general day-to-day life," she added.