Direct evidence of milk consumption from ancient human dental calculus

C. Warinner, J. Hendy, C. Speller, E. Cappellini, R. Fischer, C. Trachsel, Jette Arneborg, Niels Lynnerup, O.E. Craig, D.M. Swallow, A. Fotakis, R.J. Christensen, J.V. Olsen, A. Liebert, N. Montalva, S. Fiddyment, S. Carlton, M. Mackie, A. Canci, A. BouwmanF. Rühli, M.T.P. Gilbert, M.J. Collins

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


    Milk is a major food of global economic importance, and its consumption is regarded as a classic example of
    gene-culture evolution. Humans have exploited animal milk as a food resource for at least 8500 years, but the
    origins, spread, and scale of dairying remain poorly understood. Indirect lines of evidence, such as lipid
    isotopic ratios of pottery residues, faunal mortality profiles, and lactase persistence allele frequencies,
    provide a partial picture of this process; however, in order to understand how, where, and when humans
    consumed milk products, it is necessary to link evidence of consumption directly to individuals and their
    dairy livestock. Here we report the first direct evidence of milk consumption, the whey protein
    b-lactoglobulin (BLG), preserved in human dental calculus from the Bronze Age (ca. 3000 BCE) to the
    present day. Using protein tandem mass spectrometry, we demonstrate that BLG is a species-specific
    biomarker of dairy consumption, and we identify individuals consuming cattle, sheep, and goat milk
    products in the archaeological record. We then apply this method to human dental calculus from
    Greenland’s medieval Norse colonies, and report a decline of this biomarker leading up to the abandonment
    of the Norse Greenland colonies in the 15th century CE.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalScientific Reports
    Number of pages6
    Publication statusPublished - 2015

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