Milk drinking started around 7,500 years ago in central Europe


The ability to digest the milk sugar lactose first evolved in dairy farming communities in central Europe, not in more northern groups as was previously thought, finds a new study led by UCL (University College London) scientists published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.

The genetic change that enabled early Europeans to drink without getting sick has been mapped to dairying farmers who lived around 7,500 years ago in a region between the central Balkans and central Europe. Previously, it was thought that natural selection favoured milk drinkers only in more northern regions because of their greater need for vitamin D in their diet. People living in most parts of the world make vitamin D when sunlight hits the skin, but in northern latitudes there isn't enough sunlight to do this for most of the year.

In the collaborative study, the team used a computer simulation model to explore the spread of lactase persistence, dairy farming, other food gathering practices and genes in Europe. The model integrated genetic and archaeological data using newly developed statistical approaches.

Professor Mark Thomas, UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment, says: "Most adults worldwide do not produce the enzyme lactase and so are unable to digest the milk sugar lactose. However, most Europeans continue to produce lactase throughout their life, a characteristic known as lactase persistence. In Europe, a single genetic change (13,910*T) is strongly associated with lactase persistence and appears to have given people with it a big survival advantage. Since adult consumption of fresh milk was only possible after the domestication of animals, it is likely that lactase persistence co-evolved with the cultural practice of dairying, although it was not known when it first arose in Europe or what factors drove its rapid spread.

"Our study simulated the spread of lactase persistence and farming in Europe, and found that lactase persistence appears to have begun around 7,500 years ago between the central Balkans and central Europe, probably among people of the Linearbandkeramik culture. But contrary to popular belief, we also found that a need for dietary vitamin D was not necessary to explain why lactase persistence is common in northern Europe today."

Many reasons have been put forward for why being able to drink fresh milk should be such an advantage. For example, milk can compensate for the lack of sunlight and synthesis of vitamin D in skin at more northern latitudes, since vitamin D is required for calcium absorption and milk provides a good dietary source of both nutrients. Milk also provides a calorie- and protein-rich food source, comes in a relatively constant supply compared to the boom-and-bust of seasonal crops, and would have been less contaminated than water supplies.

Evidence from other studies suggest dairying was present in south-eastern Europe soon after the arrival of farming, while milk proteins found in ceramic vessels provide evidence for dairying in (present-day) Romania and Hungary some 7,900-7,450 years ago. Traces of fats also point to dairying at the onset of farming in England some 6,100 years ago. But it is most likely that milk was first fermented to make yoghurt, butter and cheese, and not drunk fresh. The Romans used goat and sheep milk to produce cheese, and cattle as a draught animal. However, Germanic and Celtic people practiced cattle dairying and drank fresh milk in significant amounts. The current distribution of lactase persistence would seem to suggest an origin in Northwest Europe - especially Ireland and Scandanivia - since it is found at its highest frequency there today. However, the latest study suggests otherwise. Dairy farmers carrying this gene variant probably originated in central Europe and underwent more widespread and rapid population growth than non-dairying groups.

The spread of fresh milk drinking from the Balkans across Europe also explains why most European lactase-persistent people carry the same version of the gene; it surfed on a wave of population expansion that followed the rapid co-evolution of milk tolerance and dairy farming. In Africa, there are four known lactase persistence gene variants and probably many more yet to be discovered. Most are likely to be of African origin but the European version is also found there, especially among the Falani people. This diversity is probably the result of an 'imposition' of dairying culture on a pre-existing farming people, rather than the natural spread of dairy farmers.

Source: University College London (news : web)

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Aug 28, 2009
so am I missing something? how different is animal milk from Human breast milk? I'd venture to guess that humans have been breast feeding for much longer than 7500 years!

Aug 28, 2009
They're talking about the breakdown of lactose, a type of sugar found in cows milk (not human milk). Lactose can be broken down by a good portion (but nowhere near all) of the population. (You probably know a few "lactose-intolerant" people. This is what that term means.) They're using this study to trace back the origins of when humans began drinking cows milk, in addition to mothers milk.

Sep 01, 2009
It is apparent that very few people understand how human lactation works and how it affects different societies. In ancient times, babies were nursed up to 7 years. Human milk would have been the only reliable source of protein for infants and children during times of famine or smaller periods of unsuccessful hunts. Extended lack of protein is disastrous to developing brains, so the breast milk was vital. Once other animal milks (and cereal grains, which would tend to become available at the same time as animal milk if you think about it) were available, most cultures began nursing babies for more like 4 years rather than 7. This would have had a PROFOUND effect upon fertility. While the common American nursing style typically does not suppress ovulation for long, children in non-industrialized countries may nurse so often and for so long that babies are naturally spaced several years apart. We can assume that a mother who nursed her child for 7 or so years, in ancient times, might have been infertile for an even longer period. So the whole reason animal milk drinkers' population exploded was not necessarily due to any big advantage to milk drinking, but to its effect on giving women the ability to have children closer together. Even American women today who nurse their children without the use of bottles, pacifiers, early solids, etc., and who practice child-led weaning (at about age 3 or 4) will find they may not menstruate until their child is 3 or 4.

Sep 01, 2009
BTW, there are profound differences between the milks of other species. Cows milk and human milk are extremely different and that's why cows milk is not a good substitute for human milk until it's modified considerably (and even then it's quite inferior to human milk). However, one thing ALL mammal milk has in common is lactose, which is important to brain development. All of us can digest lactose as infants. Some of us will lose that ability as we get older, and our bodies stop making sufficient lactase. For anyone interested in reading more, check out the Ruth Lawrence book, "Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession" and "Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives" which is edited by Dr. Katherine Dettwyler. The first one has a chart that compares the contents of a variety of species' milks, while the second has info on average weaning ages in different cultures, including ancient ones.

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