Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Got Lactase?

Randall Stephens

In a recent issue of Nature, Andrew Curry offers up the latest theories on milk and civilization in the West.  How and why did ancient herders supplement their diets with cheese roughly 6,800 to 7,400 years ago?  Who were these early cheese makers? What were the results of the new cheese diet and the later reliance on milk?

Says Curry:

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.

Curry also notes that:

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
An advertisement from the 1920s
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.

Working on very modern topics, I find all of this endlessly fascinating. The hard science, sleuthing, and guesswork that go into tracing these developments over thousands of years is simply amazing. It also makes me curious to know more about how region and other food stuffs--and especially those that can be easily stored--shaped the arc of human history.

Read more of the article here: Andrew Curry, "Archaeology: The milk revolution," Nature, July 31, 2013.

For more on foodways and history, see Don Yerxa's 2009 interview with Ken Albala in Historically Speaking.


Dan Allosso said...

Interesting, Randall. I liked starting the US History survey with a bit of "big history" about prehistoric migrations ( ), and changes in food sources must have been a big factor in that. And I'm just a sucker for maps with arrows and prehistoric timespans.

Eric Schultz said...

To steal a line from "Life of Brian". . .God Bless the Cheesemakers!