New Worlds: Just when did the cows come home?

International team of archeologists concludes that processing, use and storage of cow, sheep and goats' milk dates back about 10,000 years.

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August 23, 2008 22:48
4 minute read.

Until now, researchers thought that the processing, storage and use of domesticated cow, sheep and goats' milk in the Middle East and the Balkans began around 5,000 BCE. But now an international team of archeologists, including an Israeli from the Hebrew University, have concluded on the basis of milk residue in over 2,200 pottery vessels from the area that it goes back 2,000 more years. Dr. Yossef Garfinkel of HU's archeology institute and colleagues in the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Greece, Turkey and Romania published their findings in a recent issue of Nature. The authors note that "the domestication of cattle, sheep and goats had already taken place in the Near East" by the eighth millennium BCE. "Although there would have been considerable economic and nutritional gains from using these animals for their milk and other products..., the first clear evidence for this appears much later, from the late fifth and fourth millennium. Hence, the timing and region in which milking was first practiced remain unknown." But the scientists examined thousands of pottery vessels from the Middle East and southeastern Europe that were created seven to nine thousand years ago and found clear organic evidence that they contained milk lipids from domesticated animals. The use of domesticated animals for milk, wool and pulling without killing them for meat "marks an important step in the history of domestication," they write. Some researchers have argued that as soon as animals are domesticated, the benefits of these products would have been exploited rapidly; others suggested that the lack of early evidence of arts, plows and milking scenes shows that domesticated animals were first exploited mostly for meat and hides. Evidence of milk lipids on the pottery at Shikmim and Sha'ar Hagolan in Israel showed that dairy products were consumed here between the seventh and fourth millennia BCE, the article reported. The earliest use was in Turkey. "Organic residues preserved in pottery not only extend the history, but show that milking was particularly important in areas more favorable to cattle, compared to other regions where sheep and goats were more common," they concluded. ONLINE ACCESS FOR THE BLIND The Internet has changed the world, but for the visually impaired, using a computer has so far required special screen-reading software. Now free software is available that lets them surf the Internet on the go. The University of Washington computer science student who created the software, called WebAnywhere, says more accessibility tools must move from desktop machines to the Web. The free program - which turns screen-reading into an Internet service - can be downloaded at http://webanywhere.cs.washington.edu. This is for situations where someone who's blind wants access to the Internet while away from his own computer, said UW computer science and engineering Prof. Richard Ladner. He demonstrated the tool at the National Federation of the Blind's recent annual convention in Dallas. WebAnywhere was developed under Ladner's supervision by doctoral student Jeffrey Bigham, with funding by the US National Science Foundation. Free screen readers already exist, as do sophisticated commercial programs. But all must be installed on a machine before being used. This is the first accessibility tool hosted on the Web. It processes the text on an external server and then sends the audio file to the user's Web browser. "You don't have to install new software, so even if you go to a computer at a library, for example, you can still use it," Bigham said. He has received inquiries from librarians who would like to make all their machines accessible on a limited budget. He's also had interest from teachers who struggle to find the time to locate free software, get permission to install it on school computers and then maintain the program so that a single computer is accessible to a visually impaired student. This software would make any computer in the lab instantly accessible for Internet tasks. The Web-based service also eliminates the need for local technical support: there's no software to install or update because each time a person visits the site he or she gets the latest version. To test the software, researchers had people use the tool to do three things typically done on public machines: check e-mail, look up a bus schedule and look up a restaurant's phone number. People using WebAnywhere were able to complete all three tasks using a variety of machines and Internet connections. Like other screen readers, WebAnywhere converts written text to an electronically generated voice. So far the system works only in English, but the source code was released a few weeks ago and a Web developer in China has expressed interest in developing a Chinese version. The UW team plans to create updates that will allow users to change the speed at which the text is read aloud and add other features found in existing screen readers. Bigham is also working with Benetech, a non-profit organization in Palo Alto, California that distributes free electronic books and makes its collection accessible to blind users without them having to install any screen-reading software. He believes this could be the first of many Web-based accessibility tools. "Traditional desktop tools such as e-mail, word processors and spreadsheets are moving to the Web," Bigham said. "Access technology, which currently runs only on the desktop, needs to follow suit."


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