European Dairy Consumption Rethought Given New Study

While we started as hunter-gatherers ultimately animal husbandry, the cultivation of crops, and dairying took over; however, it appears that humans in certain regions had little to no ability to digest dairy products that they were producing for quite some time.

European dairy consumption: Make cheese don’t eat it

The study, which was published yesterday in Nature Communications postulates that despite tools and other evidence that cheese was made 7,000 years ago, most Europeans couldn’t process it until 3,000 years ago. The researchers sequenced the genetic information of 13 individuals who lived on the Great Hungarian Plain prior to the arrival of the Iron Age.

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“The genomes do seem to shift as new technologies come about,” co-author and Trinity College Dublin professor Daniel Bradley said. “You can’t look at this and think that farming and metallurgy are technologies that come into the culture by osmosis. They come with people. Genomes and technology migrate together.”

It’s not surprising that Bradley took a look at the genetic variation that allows most to break down the sugars in non-human milk (lactose tolerance), Ireland which Bradley calls home has one of the highest rates of lactose tolerance in modern Europe. While France’s Charles De Gaulle may have asked, “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”; Ireland has a higher concentration of people who process lactose with no issue.

“Ireland is the place in the world with the highest concentration of lactose tolerance,” Bradley said, “and undoubtedly that’s to do with a heavy reliance on drinking unprocessed milk in pre-history, and a culture focused on dairying.”

European dairy consumption: Use of the petrous bone

The researchers used DNA found in the petrous bone found at the base of the skull which provided them with a wealth of information by comparison to the use of other bones and DNA sources.

“The high-percentage DNA yield from the petrous bones exceeded those from other bones by up to 183-fold,”the study’s joint author Ron Pinhasi, an archaeologist at University College (Dublin), reported in a statement “This gave us anywhere between 12 percent and almost 90 percent human DNA in our samples, compared to somewhere between 0 percent and 20 percent obtained from teeth, fingers and rib bones.”