Plaque and milk consumption

The human diet often includes dairy, which is known to remineralize teeth and contribute to the strengthening of bones. But how did humans develop the ability to process milk in their digestive tracts? The team at Smiles by Shields points to research on ancient dental plaque for answers.

The first direct evidence of milk drinking comes from human dental calculus, a mineralized form of dental plaque. Using the latest mass spectrometry-based techniques for ancient protein sequencing, researchers detected a milk protein, beta-lactoglobulin in ancient remains.

The ability to drink and digest milk has only developed within the last several thousand years through a genetic mutation which arose in Europe, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula that allowed lactase to persist into adulthood. Previously, human babies could process lactase but adults could not.

The new research provides direct protein evidence that cattle, sheep, and goat whey has been consumed by human populations for at least 5,000 years. This corroborates previous isotopic evidence for milk fats identified on pottery and cooking utensils in early farming communities. For the past five thousand years, then, milk has been an important part of the human diet and has contributed to overall oral health, now marked by plaque in the archaeological record.


University of York. (2014, November 27). Ancient dental plaque: A ‘whey’ into our milk drinking past?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 16, 2015 from


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