Throughout history it has often been argued that, after human milk, goat’s and donkey’s milks were most suitable for us because their compositions are closest to ours. But that is not entirely true. Donkey’s milk has far less fat than human milk, and goat’s milk has triple the amount of protein.
Cows, sheep, goats, and buffalos have four stomachs; camels and llamas have three. Animals that have more than one stomach are known as ruminants. Some ruminants, such as cows and sheep, are grazers who munch on grass, and some, such as goats and deer, instead nibble on nutritious shrubs in the woods.
The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin word ruminare, which means “to rechew.” Food is regurgitated, rechewed, and sent to the rumen, one of the animal’s stomachs, to be decomposed by fermentation before passing on to the other compartments. A cow chews for between six and eight hours a day, which produces some 42 gallons of saliva that buffer the acids produced in fermentation.
Animals that have one stomach are known as monogastrics, and it would seem to make sense that milk produced by an animal that digests the way we do would be most suitable for us. This is why even today, donkey’s milk is produced commercially, especially in Italy, and sold as a health product.
Another monogastric animal is the horse, but mare’s milk has caught on in only a few cultures, perhaps because it is extremely low in fat. Pliny the Elder reported that the Sarmatians, nomadic tribesmen in Iran and the southern Urals, consumed mare’s milk mixed with millet, creating a kind of porridge that would become popular in other cultures when millet was mixed with different milks.
Herodotus, the fifth-century b.c.e. Greek historian, wrote that the Scythians, also Eurasian nomads, had a diet that consisted almost entirely of mare’s milk. But when Marco Polo, who is credited with introducing many European food trends, reported that the Mongols drank mare’s milk, Europeans were not tempted to take up the practice.
And why has the pig, another monogastric animal and the most ubiquitous farm animal in the world, never been called to dairy duty? Perhaps it is because we don’t like to eat the milk of carnivores for cultural or psychological reasons, or because meat eating badly flavors milk. But a pig is whatever you make it. Pigs will eat anything, and they can be vegetarian if you prefer. Perhaps we shun pig milk because we prefer to drink from animals that bear one to three babies and have their teats arranged in a single bladder, an udder.
Northern Europeans once considered reindeer milk the best milk of all, and for a time were also partial to elk milk. Neither has remained popular.
Comparing the different types of milk is complex. But in the beginning, the most important issues involving milk were simple: What milk-producing animal was both easiest to domesticate and available in large numbers?
All evidence indicates that milking animals began in the Middle East, possibly in Iraq or the Assyrian part of Iran. Sumerians in the city of Ur created a frieze on a wall of the temple of al-Ubaid five thousand years ago of a scene of dairy workers milking cows and pouring the liquid into large jars. But as early as was this frieze, known to archaeologists as “the dairy of al-Ubaid,” it probably did not depict the earliest milking, because cows were probably not available when milking began. Civilization in this area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is thought to date back seven thousand years.
Archaeological finds suggest that humans have been herding animals for ten thousand years, and they must have been living close to them for at least that long because animal pathogens started mutating into human diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis ten thousand years ago. Was it then that milking started?
No one really knows. How was it decided that the milk of pastoral mammals could be substituted for human milk when a mother died or was unable to produce enough milk? It seems a bold step to replace mother’s milk with that of an animal.
But perhaps animal milk was first recognized as a commercial product and only later used for feeding human babies. In a hot climate where milk spoiled very quickly, cheese and yogurt, made from soured milk, must have been developed early. In fact, until the age of refrigeration, very little fresh drinking milk was consumed in the Middle East.
Or perhaps the practice of humans drinking other mammals’ milk began when lactating animals were used as wet nurses, the human babies placed on teats to suck milk. This practice occurred in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and even in more modern times in poor parts of Europe. It is not known how frequently it actually occurred, but it is striking how often it comes up in the literature and mythology of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
In ancient times, when abandoning babies was commonplace, there were many stories of infants being saved by lactating animals. The symbol of Rome is a depiction of its two founders, the twin boys Romulus and Remus, breastfeeding on the wolf that raised them.
Another mystery is what kind of animal was first used for milking. It was almost certainly not a cow. If milking really did start in the Middle East ten thousand years ago—or even nine or eight—it must have been with some other animal, as there were not many cows there then, or anywhere else, for that matter.
The ancestor of cattle, of all bovines, was the aurochs. Aurochsen (the correct plural form) were large, powerful, violent, and aggressive animals. With horns more than two feet long and shoulders that stood higher than the height of a man, they fearlessly attacked the humans who hunted them and inspired awe, as testified to by the frequency with which they appear in cave wall paintings. Females were probably less aggressive than males, but even so, milking a wild aurochs was as practical as trying to milk a wild bison on the plains of North America. In all likelihood, neither ever happened.
In time, the wild aurochs were domesticated, and as this domestic version proliferated, the wild aurochs began to disappear. Once ranging over an area stretching from Asia through Europe, they eventually were confined to the forests of central Europe. The last aurochs died in seventeenth-century Poland.
Modern cattle do not stem from these last Central Europeans, but from a cousin, the Urus, which was very hairy and, according to Caesar, almost as large as an elephant. The Urus roamed over Europe, Asia, and Africa. An early domesticated Urus breed was the Celtic shorthorn, a small but sturdy animal that not only provided the Celts with milk, but was the ancestor of many modern breeds.
Was the first milking animal a goat, as goat enthusiasts always claim? Or was it a gazelle, the wild ancestor of goats? This is possible, but gazelle farming would have been difficult unless they were soon domesticated into goats. Perhaps it was a sheep, a relative of the goat. But sheep’s milk, with its high fat and protein content, is rich for drinking, and sheep produce only miserly amounts of milk.
Once cows became easily available, most milk producers chose to milk them rather than other animals, though that choice has never been without controversy. Mohandas Gandhi, father of the modern cow-worshipping state of India, drank exclusively goat’s milk, which he considered most healthful. But cows are easy to work with and they produce a tremendous amount of milk. A goat might produce three quarts in a day; a really good goat, a gallon. A cow naturally produces several gallons a day, and modern farmers using advanced production techniques can hope for eight or more. However, the larger the animal, the more it has to be fed, and a goat produces five times as much milk in proportion to her body weight as a cow, four times as much milk for her weight as a sheep.
Goats have another advantage over cows, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. They don’t need rich green pastures in which to graze and can find food in places where a cow would starve. They can even climb trees to eat leaves.
Farmers need animals with whom they can have a peaceful, even affectionate, relationship. The Assyrians chanted prayers and magical invocations in which they asked for their livestock to have a friendly attitude.
There is a simple trick for more easily milking cows, goats, sheep, and other animals that animal rights activists abhor. When a calf, kid, or lamb is born, it is taken away from its mother and fed milk from a bottle by the farmer. Most animal rights activists say that the separated animals moan and cry with grief. Some farmers say they do, too. Others deny it or appear not to care; as Brad Kessler, a small- scale Vermont goat farmer puts it, “Milk is power.” Separating a calf from its mother is another of the many enduring controversies around milk.
When animals are left to suckle their mothers, they drink up a considerable portion of their milk—more than they need—and a farmer’s profits. They also grow up to be very independent and sometimes distrustful of humans. But if a farmer feeds the young animals, they grow up with a real fondness for human beings. Cows are too big to frolic with people the way goats sometimes do, but they nuzzle farmers with their noses and follow them around. They like life to be calm and easy, which is why cow farmers are usually calm, soft-spoken people. Sheep follow farmers around in a cluster but demonstrate none of the individualistic behavior of cows or goats. They seem to exist more as a flock than as individuals, which is probably why there is no distinct name for them in the singular. Farmers and milking animals can enjoy a very warm relationship, but it never ends well for the animal, because a farmer cannot afford to keep feeding an animal that has stopped producing milk.
Excerpted from MILK: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky, with permission from Bloomsbury. Copyright © Mark Kurlansky, 2018.