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Tolerance of milk key to Europe’s early history?

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In the long tradition of simple answers to complex questions, archaeologists profiled in Nature trace recent European history to a genetic mutation that inhibits lactose intolerance:

During the most recent ice age, milk was essentially a toxin to adults because — unlike children — they could not produce the lactase enzyme required to break down lactose, the main sugar in milk. But as farming started to replace hunting and gathering in the Middle East around 11,000 years ago, cattle herders learned how to reduce lactose in dairy products to tolerable levels by fermenting milk to make cheese or yogurt. Several thousand years later, a genetic mutation spread through Europe that gave people the ability to produce lactase — and drink milk — throughout their lives. That adaptation opened up a rich new source of nutrition that could have sustained communities when harvests failed.

This two-step milk revolution may have been a prime factor in allowing bands of farmers and herders from the south to sweep through Europe and displace the hunter-gatherer cultures that had lived there for millennia. “They spread really rapidly into northern Europe from an archaeological point of view,” says Mark Thomas, a population geneticist at University College London. That wave of emigration left an enduring imprint on Europe, where, unlike in many regions of the world, most people can now tolerate milk. “It could be that a large proportion of Europeans are descended from the first lactase-persistent dairy farmers in Europe,” says Thomas.

Hmmm. It’s unclear whether this is an either-or situation for many individuals. People living in multicultural environments can develop a tolerance or intolerance for lactose. Interesting discussion of ancient cheese-making though.

One Reply to “Tolerance of milk key to Europe’s early history?

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    So those not tolerating milk products keeled over and milk lovers got all the chicks?
    Unlikely.
    The bible says god provides for man and beast. He would not allow people to suffer because of allergy’s to milk or let selection make a more tolerable people.
    Its not clear they were better milk users thousands of years ago in Europe.
    More likely it was the rise in wealth, land of milk and honey, that made Europe more milk friendly.
    It should be looked into whether the Protestant peoples tolerate milk better then the Catholic ones.
    If so then it was only since the reformation, and increased wealth, that the greater milk use and tolerance took place. No weird mutataions need be invoked.

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