Ancient proteins provide evidence of dairy consumption in eastern Africa

Madeleine Bleasdale*, Kristine K. Richter, Anneke Janzen, Samantha Brown, Ashley Scott, Jana Zech, Ke Wang, Stephan Schiffels, Jocelyne Desideri, Marie Besse, Jacques Reinold, Mohamed Saad, Hiba Babiker, Robert C. Power, Emmanuel Ndiema, Christine Ogola, Fredrick K. Manthi, Muhammad Zahir, Michael Petraglia, Christian TrachselPaolo Nanni, Jonas Grossmann, Jessica Hendy, Alison Crowther, Patrick Roberts, Steven T. Goldstein, Nicole Boivin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Consuming the milk of other species is a unique adaptation of Homo sapiens, with implications for health, birth spacing and evolution. Key questions nonetheless remain regarding the origins of dairying and its relationship to the genetically-determined ability to drink milk into adulthood through lactase persistence (LP). As a major centre of LP diversity, Africa is of significant interest to the evolution of dairying. Here we report proteomic evidence for milk consumption in ancient Africa. Using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) we identify dairy proteins in human dental calculus from northeastern Africa, directly demonstrating milk consumption at least six millennia ago. Our findings indicate that pastoralist groups were drinking milk as soon as herding spread into eastern Africa, at a time when the genetic adaptation for milk digestion was absent or rare. Our study links LP status in specific ancient individuals with direct evidence for their consumption of dairy products.

Original languageEnglish
Article number632
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2021
Funding Information:
The authors are grateful to all local collaborators who contributed to this study. This project was made possible only due to the generous assistance of the staff and curators of the Nairobi National Museum and National Museums of Kenya. All research in Kenya was carried out under permits from the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, Kenya. Sampling and analysis of material from Sudan was made possible only with the assistance of Abdel Rahman Ali Mohamed of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums. Our thanks to the staff at the Sudan National Museum, Khartoum and Laboratory of Prehistoric Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Geneva for their help with facilitating the sampling of remains. Thanks also to la Section Française de la Direction des Antiquités au Soudan. The authors express their gratitude to Mary Lucas, Sara Marzo, and Bianca Fiedler for their assistance with isotope sample preparation and mass spectrometry. Our thanks to Mike Dee and Sanne Palstra from the Centre for Isotope Research (CIO), Groningen, and Brian Tripney and Philip Naysmith from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) for radiocarbon analysis. Thanks to Michelle O’Reilly for assistance with figures. This research was supported by the Max Planck Society.

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