Archaeology: The Milk Revolution

Andrew Curry, Nature, July 31, 2013

In the 1970s, archaeologist Peter Bogucki was excavating a Stone Age site in the fertile plains of central Poland when he came across an assortment of odd artifacts. The people who had lived there around 7,000 years ago were among central Europe’s first farmers, and they had left behind fragments of pottery dotted with tiny holes. It looked as though the coarse red clay had been baked while pierced with pieces of straw.

Looking back through the archaeological literature, Bogucki found other examples of ancient perforated pottery. “They were so unusual—people would almost always include them in publications,” says Bogucki, now at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had seen something similar at a friend’s house that was used for straining cheese, so he speculated that the pottery might be connected with cheese-making. But he had no way to test his idea.

The mystery potsherds sat in storage until 2011, when Mélanie Roffet-Salque pulled them out and analysed fatty residues preserved in the clay. Roffet-Salque, a geochemist at the University of Bristol, UK, found signatures of abundant milk fats—evidence that the early farmers had used the pottery as sieves to separate fatty milk solids from liquid whey. That makes the Polish relics the oldest known evidence of cheese-making in the world.

Roffet-Salque’s sleuthing is part of a wave of discoveries about the history of milk in Europe. {snip}

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.


Young children almost universally produce lactase and can digest the lactose in their mother’s milk. But as they mature, most switch off the lactase gene. Only 35% of the human population can digest lactose beyond the age of about seven or eight. {snip}

Most people who retain the ability to digest milk can trace their ancestry to Europe, where the trait seems to be linked to a single nucleotide in which the DNA base cytosine changed to thymine in a genomic region not far from the lactase gene. There are other pockets of lactase persistence in West Africa (see Nature 444, 994–996; 2006), the Middle East and south Asia that seem to be linked to separate mutations.

The single-nucleotide switch in Europe happened relatively recently. Thomas and his colleagues estimated the timing by looking at genetic variations in modern populations and running computer simulations of how the related genetic mutation might have spread through ancient populations. They proposed that the trait of lactase persistence, dubbed the LP allele, emerged about 7,500 years ago in the broad, fertile plains of Hungary.


Once the LP allele appeared, it offered a major selective advantage. In a 2004 study, researchers estimated that people with the mutation would have produced up to 19% more fertile offspring than those who lacked it. The researchers called that degree of selection “among the strongest yet seen for any gene in the genome”.

Compounded over several hundred generations, that advantage could help a population to take over a continent. But only if “the population has a supply of fresh milk and is dairying”, says Thomas. “It’s gene–culture co-evolution. They feed off of each other.”

To investigate the history of that interaction, Thomas teamed up with Joachim Burger, a palaeogeneticist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany, and Matthew Collins, a bioarchaeologist at the University of York. They organized a multidisciplinary project called LeCHE (Lactase Persistence in the early Cultural History of Europe), which brought together a dozen early-career researchers from around Europe.

By studying human molecular biology and the archaeology and chemistry of ancient pottery, LeCHE participants also hoped to address a key issue about the origins of modern Europeans. “It’s been an enduring question in archaeology—whether we’re descended from Middle Eastern farmers or indigenous hunter-gatherers,” says Thomas. The argument boils down to evolution versus replacement. Did native populations of hunter-gatherers in Europe take up farming and herding? Or was there an influx of agricultural colonists who outcompeted the locals, thanks to a combination of genes and technology?

One strand of evidence came from studies of animal bones found at archaeological sites. If cattle are raised primarily for dairying, calves are generally slaughtered before their first birthday so that their mothers can be milked. But cattle raised mainly for meat are killed later, when they have reached their full size. (The pattern, if not the ages, is similar for sheep and goats, which were part of the dairying revolution.)

On the basis of studies of growth patterns in bones, LeCHE participant Jean-Denis Vigne, an archaeozoologist at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris, suggests that dairying in the Middle East may go all the way back to when humans first started domesticating animals there, about 10,500 years ago. That would place it just after the Middle Eastern Neolithic transition—when an economy based on hunter-gathering gave way to one devoted to agriculture. {snip}

Dairying then expanded in concert with the Neolithic transition, says Gillis, who has looked at bone growth at 150 sites in Europe and Anatolia (modern Turkey). As agriculture spread from Anatolia to northern Europe over roughly two millennia, dairying followed a similar pattern.

On their own, the growth patterns do not say whether the Neolithic transition in Europe happened through evolution or replacement, but cattle bones offer important clues. In a precursor study, Burger and several other LeCHE participants found that domesticated cattle at Neolithic sites in Europe were most closely related to cows from the Middle East, rather than indigenous wild aurochs. This is a strong indication that incoming herders brought their cattle with them, rather than domesticating locally, says Burger. A similar story is emerging from studies of ancient human DNA recovered at a few sites in central Europe, which suggest that Neolithic farmers were not descended from the hunter-gatherers who lived there before.

Taken together, the data help to resolve the origins of the first European farmers. “For a long time, the mainstream of continental European archaeology said Mesolithic hunter-gatherers developed into Neolithic farmers,” says Burger. “We basically showed they were completely different.”


Models created by LeCHE participant Pascale Gerbault, a population geneticist at University College London, explain how the trait might have spread. As Middle Eastern Neolithic cultures moved into Europe, their farming and herding technologies helped them to out-compete the local hunter-gatherers. And as the southerners pushed north, says Gerbault, the LP allele ‘surfed’ the wave of migration.

Lactase persistence had a harder time becoming established in parts of southern Europe, because Neolithic farmers had settled there before the mutation appeared. But as the agricultural society expanded northwards and westwards into new territory, the advantage provided by lactase persistence had a big impact. “As the population grows quickly at the edge of the wave, the allele can increase in frequency,” says Gerbault.

The remnants of that pattern are still visible today. In southern Europe, lactase persistence is relatively rare—less than 40% in Greece and Turkey. In Britain and Scandinavia, by contrast, more than 90% of adults can digest milk.


By the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago, the LP allele was prevalent across most of northern and central Europe, and cattle herding had become a dominant part of the culture. “They discover this way of life, and once they can really get the nutritional benefits they increase or intensify herding as well,” says Burger. Cattle bones represent more than two-thirds of the animal bones in many late Neolithic and early Bronze Age archaeological sites in central and northern Europe.

The LeCHE researchers are still puzzling out exactly why the ability to consume milk offered such an advantage in these regions. Thomas suggests that, as people moved north, milk would have been a hedge against famine. Dairy products—which could be stored for longer in colder climes—provided rich sources of calories that were independent of growing seasons or bad harvests.

Others think that milk may have helped, particularly in the north, because of its relatively high concentration of vitamin D, a nutrient that can help to ward off diseases such as rickets. {snip}


Some of the LeCHE participants are now probing further back in time, as part of a project named BEAN (Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic), which is looking at how the first farmers and herders made their way into Europe. Burger, Thomas and their BEAN collaborators will be in Turkey this summer, tracing the origins of the Neolithic using computer models and ancient-DNA analysis in the hope of better understanding who the early farmers were, and when they arrived in Europe.



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  • JohnEngelman

    A number of years ago I read about a 10,000 year old skeleton that was discovered in England. DNA evidence determined that a direct descendant of that person lived fifty miles away.

    Neolithic farmers from the Near East probably mingled with paleolithic hunters who already lived in Europe.

  • IstvanIN

    Another advantage to raising dairy cattle is that cows can digest plant matter that humans can not. Additionally if you keep a cow for milk you get a source of protein year round that you would not get if you slaughtered and ate her right away.

    When a White marries a black they flush 7,500 years of evolution and advancement down the drain.

    • Romulus

      Sickening, isn’t it! From every conceivable angle!! My emotions fluctuate between extreme melancholy and rage.

    • Got Milk?

      Interestingly, “pecuniary,” an English word relating to monetary affairs, comes from the Latin word for money, “pecunia,” which in term comes from the Latin word “pecus,” meaning cow.

      • me

        Milk–it does a body good.

    • ViktorNN

      Plus, that white European person who marries a black African will produce children who will most likely have a lower IQ than they do.

      Miscegenation is harmful to white people.

      • me

        Yeah, what’s the point? Life is hard enough without mixed race problems. If you want to kill any chance of your children being happy, or that they’ll never look like you and your parents, or that they’ll always feel ‘different’ in a bad way…marry someone outside your race and culture and have children. Selfish and cruel.

      • gemjunior

        They think it’s ok because of the propaganda and the lack of proper education. If whites had any idea they were destroying those centuries of evolution they would not do it. There is no pride in their ancestry, only shame because that is what they learn. If a woman knew that her children would be less intelligent and more violent if she bred with a negro perhaps she would think twice. However, most women think that her kids will be a nice shade of tan and have ‘hybrid vigor’ (one of them actually told me on facebook that my racism stems from ignorance and hybrid vigor is the result of miscegenation)LOL. Yes you’re right, it is very harmful to us.

        • ViktorNN

          I predict that as more and more is learned about human genetics, and race in particular, people will start taking miscegenation a lot more seriously.

          People with pure genetic backgrounds will try to preserve it by picking mates with similar backgrounds. Being pure white will be highly sought after.

        • saxonsun

          They would do it. For many of us, the superiority and hegemony of our people is of critical importance. For some, it is nothing at all. The past, the foundation we built means nothing to such people. They’d laugh.

    • itdoesnotmatter

      When a White marries a black they flush 7,500 years of evolution and advancement down the drain.

      Not to mention bringing shame upon the heads of proud Euro parents.
      Fair skinned, as a child, my hair was so blond it was white, yet brown-eyed from my mother’s swarthy black Irish background. Her eyes are so dark they look black. Recently the gastro man tested me for lactose tolerance, results: intolerant.

      • gemjunior

        My husband has those eyes and he is also Irish, light skin, dark hair and eyes. When I first met him I was a bit put off because the pupils were almost the same as the iris or vice versa – but they are a little like shark eyes. On the other hand I come from a family of all blue eyes and fair hair and skin, none of my children have blue eyes. But their eyes are a very light hazely brown and they are fair, but I’m glad they don’t look like sharks…

        • itdoesnotmatter

          So am I, Gem! No more shark eyes.

          I have one black eyed, black haired child, one blond, fair, blue/green eyed one. We all have super curly hair. My son keeps asking me if we have “eggplant” somewhere in our background. Hard to tell. The Romans were everywhere.

          • gemjunior

            LOL, I hope not – also I hope there is no truth to those “black Irish” or wherever that story came from. There were so many invasions over there, Normans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Spaniards I think too? From the shipwrecked Armada? Thank God it wasn’t the Puerto Rican or Dominican Negro Armada….. I guess we never know if some stupid Prehistoric Libtard Diversity Seeker in our family was yearning for some cultural enrichment. More likely they were stolen off a hillside and sold, and if Moolius Eggplantius was in the cage you know our ancestors were definitely enriched, whether they liked it or not….

    • Whitetrashgang

      More like 50,000 at least.

  • Romulus

    This study would then suggest that fair people did in fact come from the middle east even if the researchers call the others indigenous hunter -gatherers. It is easily explained through modern records as we all know from prof. Brian Sykes DNA testing across northern Europe, that the highest concentrations of reds and blonds occurs in north and western Europe. Skeletons have been found in cereal Asia also contains the rb1 gene for red hair. Not the fuzzy kind. Let’s see if these scientists connect the dots or try to spin the study to justify massive waves of haji migration.

  • Hal K

    I read somewhere that the mutation in India is identical to the mutation in Europe, which seems to imply that it comes from the same person. It also has been linked to the Aryan invasion of India.

    The dark patch near India seems to be shifted towards Pakistan a bit. I am not sure what this means, but it might not be correct,

    • Bert Sterling

      Indus Valley civilization.

      • Hal K

        I guess you just weren’t up to writing more than three words.

  • Puggg

    It’s more reasonable now, but have you seen the price of milk relatively recently? It’s a good thing that most of the world’s adults are lactose intolerant.

    • me

      I couldn’t live without butter, cheese, milk, or ice cream. Man, I’m glad that my ancestors gave me the gift of lactose compatibility.

      • Ditto, but cheese here. Cheese is my favorite food after only salt-water seafood.

        • me

          Yum! Now I’m hungry!

        • itdoesnotmatter

          I won’t eat store bought seafood anymore. Read an online article discussing USA’s lax oversight of fish industries in China and Indonesia, the source of most of our fish. It arrives with country of origin changed, [China is red flagged] often with maggots infesting product in the lower crates. Hence, the bleach scented fish from pressure nozzle wash used to dislodge them.

          • I only buy US products for us where seafood is concerned. Farmed salmon might or might not be safe, depending on the PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) content in the area, so with salmon, we always buy Pacific wild. These PCBs are fat-soluble carcinogens. I prefer fish, octopus and squid raw, but always cook shellfish and crustaceans.

            Look at the label. I saw frozen crayfish at Wal Mart once, and looked at the label: China. These could have been pulled out of lakes full of hideous industrial waste.

          • itdoesnotmatter

            I read all food labels. According to the article, fish is deliberately mislabeled. So-called wild Pacific salmon is nothing of the sort. It’s ordinary salmon with red dye injected. Domestic farmed fish is raised in feces laden water and chemically treated. My Berkeley fish monger, whom I’ve known for years, has his own fleet.

          • T_Losan

            Roche is on top of it…I prefer #31 hue salmon myself

          • oregonlocal

            That’s why I like the PNW. You can go out and catch your own.

          • gemjunior

            That is a bile-inducing report, but it will cause me to pick fish with more discretion. Ugh. My husband’s friend owns a fish restaurant so he goes to the Fulton fish market every morning to pick them and they’re on ice. His dad was actually from London and sold fish in the street and when he came here opened a fish shop! The son expanded it into a big beautiful seafood restaurant but kept the dad’s fish store part so people can still buy it. It’s really expensive but it’s worth knowing there were no maggots on it…..

  • Romulus

    Reading a study about redheads on the daily mail/uk, researchers show that red heads paricularly have an ability to prevent ricketts because of their pale skin. It allows more sunlight to be absorbed and therefore more vitamin d. Next in line would be blonds and brunettes.

    • Irishgirl

      I know I get sunburned in ten minutes, so yeah, I absorb sunlight well.

      • Romulus

        Be careful with sunblock lass!! Its been linked with skin cancers. They all have high concentrations of aluminum dioxide,titanium dioxide, and zinc. Try to eliminate lotions and cosmetics that have synthetic chemicals as well as unnatural underarm deoderants. The only reason they work is because of nano technology that make the metals in them so small that it seals your pores shut, preventing sweating. However, it is a direct pathway to your breasts and lymph system.

        • Irishgirl

          But repeated sunburns cause skin cancer. Both my parents have had multiple skin cancers removed, so I know it’s just a matter of time for me.

          • Romulus

            The simple solution for fair skinned beauty’s is to get the amount of sunlight you need (15min) and always have light clothing with you. Excellent breathable beach wear like LINEN slacks and top will keep you cool and protect you from ultraviolet light. Keep a nice beach hat and glasses handy too.

          • Bud Smith

            How much sunlight does a person need? It’s probably more than 15 minutes. Also, what percent of total skin area needs to be exposed and for how long? Seems walking outside for a few minutes wearing long pants and a coat wouldn’t be adequate. I’d also guess different races have different requirements, and that most people are vitamin D deficient.

          • Romulus

            Apparently, not if your white. Like the other gentleman posted. Milk, it does a Whitey good.

        • The compounds you have mentioned: Al2O3, TiO2 and ZnO are not carcinogenic. For the layman, they’re basically purified components of what is already in sand.

          Breathing the dust of these materials would doubtless cause fibrotic lung damage, but mixed in a cream and put on the skin, they’re safe.

          • Romulus

            The cumulative effect of high concentrations of any metal(including iron) is detrimental. Aluminum and titanium aren’t a natural part of human composition zinc in larger quantities can cause nail scaling and hair loss. The body only uses what it needs. Invariably, the point I was making is that if you can’t pronounce it don’t eat or put it on your skin.

      • Sick of it

        I feel your pain. Not a redhead, but I have very fair skin.

  • bigone4u

    Science again providing evidence that race is NOT just a social construct. I’m loving it.

  • sbuffalonative

    Is this why blacks favor purple soda?

    • IstvanIN

      grape drank.

    • Libertarian67

      Malt Liquor

  • din_do_nuffins

    Look for discoveries like these be called “dangerous and borderline hateful.”

  • The white spot in the SA/Namib desert is reasonable, as the bushmen didn’t keep livestock, but south China and Indochina seem strange to me. Haven’t they kept water buffalo for a very long time? Australia makes perfect sense: the demographic becomes more Aboriginal farther north, and they never kept livestock.

    One of the tidbits I know from homebrewing is that most yeasts can not metabolize lactose, though the Mongols made kumis by somehow fermenting mare’s milk. It had a very low level of alcohol however, typically only one or two percent. I manage 10% brewing cider at home; I don’t like it stronger than that.

  • Ella

    Milk is the highest animal protein base, even over fish. So it would aid in survival through brutal winners and famine. I think ancestral Europeans also lived with their livestock so it helped with the mutation somehow. I thought more diverse cultures would consume goat milk?????

    • Bad_Mr_Frosty

      Living close to animals boosted the immune system as well. The Amerindians had no domesticated animals and that’s partly why smallpox spread through them like wildfire.

      • Smallpox was also an old-world disease, so in the Americas and Australia, it had a “virgin” population who had never been exposed to it. I believe it also greatly hurt native Siberians once white Russians brought it eastward with them.

      • gemjunior

        Wow, I thought it was because bad white people smothered the poor, peaceful innocent Indians with blankets that people with smallpox had used. At least that’s the word out there….

    • Milk can also be made into cheese, which is easier to store for winter.

      Ancestral Europeans living with their livestock during the winters also allowed disease organisms better opportunities to jump species. Early humans probably acquired tuberculosis from cattle when we began keeping them.

      A very good read on this subject is “Man and Microbes”, by Arno Karlen. 1995. Touchstone paperback 1996. ISBN 0-684 82270-9.

      • Terra Magnum Imperium

        Cowpox which lessen the severity of Smallpox also It has been shown that children raised on farms have the healthiest immune systems.

    • WhiteGuyInJapan

      Lactose tolerance also increases the overall efficiency of labor. LT folks can increase their caloric intake from one animal in a manner that the lactose intolerant can not.

  • IKantunderstand

    What they should look at:: is being lactose intolerant a positive correlation with being stupid, and/ or completely unadventurous

  • KenelmDigby

    Growing up in England, virtually every house in the street had an account with the milkman, who would leave several pint bottles of milk on your doorstep in the early hours of the morning. This was true of the countless thousands of residential streets and roads in th UK, a doorstep milk delivery was virtually guranteed. In fact several dairy contractors competed for business along the road – I can remember 4 distinct dairy firms offerig delivery in my road alone.
    The assumption always was that *everyone* could drink milk, before the advent of mass immigration to the UK, this was at least the impression.

  • NeanderthalDNA

    I-talians are White, lol! What part of the peninsula do yours come from?
    Hey, safest White neighborhoods in the big NE cities? Anywhere? Places where a little “this thing of ours” still survives…

    Diversity IS a great thing, you know? The very diverse genetic-cultural nature of the White tribes of old Europa and her periphery DID make a New Man of the American White. In the Northeast the I-talian, eastern European and such mixing with the Gallo-Teutonic created a very vibrant White northeastern mongrel which complemented well earlier strains.

    Yes, basically White diversity is a great and positive thing. I used to think of Italians as olive skinned, and many are, but many are more Germanic in appearance in the North, genetically, which makes all sorts of sense if one studies history.

    What would America be without the I-talians?

  • NeanderthalDNA


    Could not agree more. Look at Italian average IQ – pretty solid…

    If some “other” DNA has drifted into sunny Italia over the millennia (such as during the very cosmopolitan – diverse????) era of Rome, then…

    A) Waves of Whiteys from northern Europa have always invaded Italia one way or another, re-affirming the Race, and…

    B) As our Neanderthal heritage suggests, well, I probably wouldn’t want to get it on with a strapping Neanderthal lass, regardless of the fact I have some of her DNA. Uh…ugh… So, as I’ve posited here before, when non_White/Aryan DNA gets into the pool and the pool ends up like 100+ IQ and functional…and looks White, lives White, identifies, etc,..

    In Jared’s words…looks White to me!”

    And nothing wrong with blonde Aryans being attracted to darkie Aryans…kind of natural and argues even stronger for saving White homelands…

    You know, with global warming and all, Siberia looks increasingly nice to White pioneers. Perhaps I should write a letter to Mr. Putin. I like him.

    Anyways, you guys know how to live well. I hope more of “this thing of ours” mentality seeps into American Whites’ mentality. I’m from the old Southeast of America, where the base White population is more…English/Scots-Irish/French/Dutch-German with a splash of east coast Native American and sometimes, sure yup, whatever, oops, lol…though one should not assume such.

    Grafting onto that has been a steady stream of more recent White immigrants, including second wind internal transplants of NE 20th century standard White mélange types (baseline Gallo-Teutonic with heavy blend of Italian, Slavic, Ashkenazi, and a bewildering variety of White and White fringe types like Steve Jobs and his Alawite Syrian heritage).

    Funny. Al Capone’s long lost I-talian brother ended up being this cowboy…great American story there…

    Yep, you I-talians get around, lol…

  • Bossman

    Yeah, that is still a mystery yet to be solved. Hindus don’t believe that they were ever invaded by Aryans. Early Europeans seemed to have had a connection to India with a root language called Indo-European.

    • David Ashton

      The root language called Indo-European is the root language formerly called Aryan. Whatever the truth about the (unlikely) “out of India” theory of some modern Hindu nationalists, languages of most Europeans and many northern Indians are unquestionably related, as also are some religious ideas and practices of early Europe and ancient India (and Persia).

  • BonusGift

    There are the gypsies.

  • Romulus

    It would appear, in your case, that your dominant genes favor a more northern composition.