In South Africa, People Painted with Cow Milk Long Before They Domesticated Cattle

The need to hunt wild cow relatives would have made this paint valuable

stone with paint
Researchers discovered a red ochre- and milk-based paint on a stone flake from 49,000 years ago. CU Museum of Natural History

The first herd of domesticated cattle probably lived about 10,500 years ago somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, but the practice of keeping cows for milk or meat took time to spread through the world. It didn’t reach Southern Africa until between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. That timeline made it somewhat of a surprise when researchers recently discovered paint made from ochre, a clay pigment, and bovid (the family of animals that includes bison, buffalo, antelopes, gazelles, sheep, goats, and domestic cattle)​ milk dating to about 49,000 years ago from a cave in South Africa.

For Mental Floss, Shaunacy Ferro reports that the researchers, led by Paolo Villa, a curator at the the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, first found casein, a protein found in milk, in a smear of reddish paint on the edge of a stone. The milk would have helped the powder of ochre bind together into a paste that people may have used to paint stone, wood or their bodies. The researchers figured that the mixture was paint, rather than adhesive because milk doesn’t stick that strongly unless the proteins are mixed with lime and heated. 

The stone flake came from a rock shelter in northern KwaZuluNatal province, in South Africa, which was occupied by humans during the Middle Stone Age, roughly 77,000 to 38,000 years ago and  long before cattle were domesticated in the area. Instead, the milk probably came from a wild animal related to a cow, the researchers explain in their paper, published in PLOS One. A detailed analysis of the casein shows that the building blocks of the protein, peptides, match those found in the bovid family rather than milk from humans, sheep or goats.  

“Although the use of the paint still remains uncertain, this surprising find establishes the use of milk with ochre well before the introduction of domestic cattle in South Africa,” Villa says in a press release from the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Some of the wild bovids this milk may have come from include eland, kudu, buffalo, duiker or bushback. And like the wild ancestors of cattle, aurochs, these animals aren’t very docile. It’s unlikely the Stone Age hunters were able to milk them, so hunting would have been necessary to get the milk. 

All of those wild African bovids usually separate from the herd to give birth in seclusion, new mothers would have made easy targets for hunters, the researchers reason. The effort required to find and kill a lactating cow probably would have made milk valuable. "[T]he people may have attributed a special significance and value to that product," Villa says.

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