We have historic records for dairying in Wensleydale going back to the medieval era but by that time people had already been milking cows, sheep and goats for thousands of years.
The very first farmers are associated with the Neolithic period. People were still using stone tools then, but they gradually stopped hunting and gathering their food and settled down to grow crops and farm animals. The first people to start farming lived in the so-called Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
They domesticated wild goats and sheep and also wild cattle known as Aurochs around 10,500 years ago. Archaeologists studying a fascinating range of evidence believe that using the milk from these animals began almost immediately and over the following two thousand years, dairying spread, along with farmers from western Anatolia (modern Turkey) throughout northern Europe.
We have an Aurochs horn in the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum. They were fearsome beasts, much larger than today’s domesticated cattle.
It’s unlikely however that hunter-gatherers captured and tamed the Aurochs wandering in Wensleydale. Archaeologists studying things like bone DNA tell us that Neolithic farmers migrated into Britain along with their already domesticated cattle, sheep and goats.
Even more fascinating than this story of domestication and migration is the fact that the first farmers couldn’t actually digest the milk they were collecting from their animals. They lacked the crucial lactase enzyme allowing them to break down the sugar or lactose in the milk, so it was essentially toxic to them.
By studying residues left in Neolithic pottery, particularly some fragments of pottery from Poland, scientists now believe that the first farmers learned very quickly to ferment milk into digestible foods. Friendly bacteria and naturally-occurring enzymes were used to ‘digest’ the lactose in the milk, producing tasty yoghurt; cheese and kefir.
The perforated pottery was used to strain the solid curds from the whey or bacterial cultures as in the case of kefir.
As Neolithic farmers spread across Europe an extraordinary genetic mutation took place which allowed them eventually to digest the lactose in raw milk. So, by the time the Neolithic farming revolution reached Wensleydale about 7000 years ago, our first farmers could drink milk, as well as make cheese which could be stored against times of famine. To this day, the ability to digest lactose is almost exclusively found among Europeans.
Read more about the amazing research projects behind this story in ‘Archaeology: The milk revolution’