Dairy farming (keeping Mammals in order to consume their milk or products derived from it) spread through Europe as part of the ‘Neolithic Package’ of technologies, which originated in the Middle East about 11 000 years ago. Despite this development being based upon animals originating in warm, arid climates, it was able to spread into the cooler climates of northwestern Europe, Scotland, Norway and Sweden, during the Neolithic, largely due to the moderating climatic influence of the Gulf Stream, which brings warm waters from the Caribbean to the northwest coast of Europe. Outside Europe this technology arrived in cold climates much later, reaching Iceland and Greenland with Viking settlers in the ninth century, then northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Kamchatka and southern South America with later European settlers.
The situation in Finland is less clear; modern Finns consume large amounts of dairy products in their diets, but the country is located to the north of the 60th parallel, and far away from the warming influence of the Gulf Stream, so that snow showers are not uncommon even in midsummer and animals need lengthy periods of sheltering and feeding during winter months. It is difficult to see how Neolithic dairy farmers could have coped with such conditions, particularly as the colonies founded by the advanced Iron Age Vikings in Greenland are known to have failed during the Little Ice Age. Moreover direct evidence of animal husbandry in Finland during the Neolithic is unlikely to survive, as the country has notoriously acidic soils, which do not facilitate the preservation of bone.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Series B, Biological Sciences, on 30 July 2014, a team of scientists led by Lucy Cramp of the Organic Geochemistry Unit at the School of Chemistry and Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, discuss the results of a study intended to find the earliest occurrence of dairy farming in Finland by looking for traces of lipid (oil and fat) molecules in shards of pottery. Unlike bone, such molecules are likely to survive in acid soils, albeit with modifications, and it is possible to tell whether they derive from fish, meat or dairy products.
Integrated maps of: (a) the northern hemisphere relative to the North Pole. Highlighted are the modern borders of Finland (in red) and the 60th parallel north (in light blue), (b) the location of all Finnish prehistoric sites from which shards were sampled, and (c) the distribution of the Corded Ware culture within Finland. Mapped (black dots) are finds of typical stone battle axes, used as a proxy. The red isolines indicate average permanent snow cover period from 1981 to 2010. A recent study estimates the snow cover period ca 4500 years ago would have been 40–50 days less than today. Overlying coloration refers to the lactose persistance (LP) allele gradient in modern northeastern Europe; lozenge dots specify the dataset mean points for the triangulation. Cramp et al. (2014).
The earliest pottery shards from which it was possible to recover lipids came from the of Vantaa Stenkulla/Maarinkunnas site, which dates to between 3900 and 3300 BC, and was located on a narrow bay, which opened onto a larger bay on the Litorina Sea. This site is associated with Neoloithic Comb Ware pottery (generally thought to pre-date farming in Europe), and is thought to have been inhabited by settled people with an economy based upon fishing, hunting and foraging. These shards produced traces only of fish-derived lipids, although Cramp et al. did find traces of palmitic acid, which they consider surprising, as this is typically only produced by heating such lipids to above 270˚C, and Comb Ware pottery is not generally thought to have been able to withstand cookery (although it is perfectly possible to cook a fish then put it in a pot).
Lipid traces were found on pottery from the later Neolithic Corded Ware at three sites, Tengå Nyåker, Koivistosveden and Backisåker, dating to about 2500 BC. Corded Ware is generally associated with the earliest farmers in Europe, and was therefore of the greatest interest; in other areas this pottery would be associated with the introduction of dairy farming, but was this possible in Finland? Only a single fragment of bone has been recovered from one of these sites (Tengå Nyåker), and this is thought to have derived from a wild Mammal. Cramp et al. were able to derive lipids relating to both meat and dairy products from Corded Ware pottery from these sites, and while the meat-derived lipids could have come from either wild or domestic animals, the presence of milk-derived fats is taken as clear evidence of domesticated stock. Fish-derived lipids were only found at one of the sites (Koivistosveden), this being the site closest to the coast.
Pottery from the latest Neolithic Kiukainen Ware, which is local to Finland and appears to have arisen from a fusion of local Comb Ware culture and invading Corded Ware culture, during a period of climatic deterioration, yielded lipids from a single site, Nakkila Uotinmäki, which is dated to about 2000 BC. This site yielded a mixture of meat and fish fats.
Finally the Early Bronze Age sites Raasepori Kroggård Hagnäs and Kaarina Toivola Hulkkio, dating from around 1000 BC, and the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age Espoo Bolarskog site (about 500 BC), all yielded milk-derived lipids.
Timeline showing the archaeological cultures discussed here alongside actual shards sampled and typical vessel forms (latter not shown to scale). Distribution maps show the geographical range of (f) Typical Comb Ware, (g) Corded Ware, (h) Kiukainen Ware and (i) Bronze Age cultures in the region. Cramp et al. (2014).
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