Stephanie Dudd and Richard Evershed of Bristol University's school of chemistry found traces of animal fat in Iron Age pottery shards that could only have come from the decomposition of milk.
They believe it is the first direct evidence showing that dairying was an ancient activity that probably arose long after the domestication of farm animals. "Although sheep are thought to have been domesticated in the Near East at about 9,000 BC and cattle and goats were domesticated about 7,000BC, there is no direct evidence that they were milked," they say in the journal Science.
Pictorial and written records from North Africa, Egypt and Mesopotamia show that dairying had begun there between 4,000 and 2,900 BC, but there was no direct evidence of it being adopted in Britain.
The Bristol researchers found the preserved residues of dairy products in Iron Age remains at sites in Northamptonshire. And Dr Evershed added: "There are indications that there are similar residues in much earlier pottery dating back to the Neolithic period."Reuse content