The domestication of cattle, sheep and goats had already taken place in the Near East by the eighth millennium BC(1-3). Although there would have been considerable economic and nutritional gains from using these animals for their milk and other products from living animals - that is, traction and wool - the first clear evidence for these appears much later, from the late fifth and fourth millennia BC(4,5). Hence, the timing and region in which milking was first practised remain unknown. Organic residues preserved in archaeological pottery(6,7) have provided direct evidence for the use of milk in the fourth millennium in Britain(7-9), and in the sixth millennium in eastern Europe(10), based on the delta(13)C values of the major fatty acids of milk fat(6,7). Here we apply this approach to more than 2,200 pottery vessels from sites in the Near East and southeastern Europe dating from the fifth to the seventh millennia BC. We show that milk was in use by the seventh millennium; this is the earliest direct evidence to date. Milking was particularly important in northwestern Anatolia, pointing to regional differences linked with conditions more favourable to cattle compared to other regions, where sheep and goats were relatively common and milk use less important. The latter is supported by correlations between the fat type and animal bone evidence.