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Ireland's Dairy Industry Was Booming Even 6000 Years Ago

Jan 19, 2015 04:23 PM EST

Experts have long suspected that the advent of agriculture began about 12,000 years ago, but the domestication of the farm animals we know and love today likely took much longer. Now, new research has determined the Irish in particular may have been right on track, boasting a booming and complex dairy industry even 6,000 years ago.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the Journal of Environmental Archaeology, which details how experts found traces of ancient dairy fats in pots dating to around 4,000 to 2,500 BC.

"We know from previous research that dairying was an important part of many early farming economies, but what was a big surprise was the prevalence of dairy residues in Irish pots," researcher Jessica Smyth, from the University of Bristol, said in a statement. "It looks to have been a very important food source."

According to the study, Smyth and her colleagues analyzed nearly 500 pots from the Neolithic period - when people switched from hunting and gathering to farming. The team used a combination of fat or lipid and isotope identifying techniques, in which the "fingerprint" of fats preserved in the walls of these cooking pots could be categorized as from either a meat or milk source.

It's important to note that archaeologists suspect that crop and animal domestication began in Ireland and Great Britain more than 1,000 years after agriculture found its way to the rest of the European continent. It may have taken even longer for dairy farming techniques in particular to be learned in Ireland, as animals like sheep and cattle were not native to the Emerald Isle. However, it looked like early Irish farmers picked the technique up exceptionally fast.

"The Irish dairy signal remains very striking, particularly when you compare it with the continental European data sets. Ireland really does seem to go mad for milk in the Neolithic," Smyth added. "They [were] setting up everything from scratch, and taking a significant gamble with their livelihoods and those of their dependants. These [were] a very determined group of pioneer farmers."

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