The historical role of milk and dairying in shaping European societies

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Author: László Varga


1.       Summary


Based on results recently published in the scientific literature, the author briefly outlines in this mini-review how dairying has become, over thousands of years, a basic activity of humankind. Following the domestication of cattle, goats and sheep, which had begun approximately 10,500 to 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, milk was already in use in northwestern Anatolia by the seventh millennium BC. In lack of lactase, however, milk consumption resulted in unpleasant outcomes (e.g., flatulence, cramps, diarrhea, etc.) in the vast majority of prehistoric farmers.

The negative symptoms associated with lactose intolerance were later considerably alleviated by the introduction of simple milk processing techniques such as fermentation. Thus, for instance, Neolithic farming communities in north-central Poland started producing cheese between 6800 and 7400 years ago. Intriguingly, the ability to digest lactose in adulthood, termed lactase persistence (LP), emerged as a result of a genetic mutation at about the same time in central Europe, and the LP allele has been subject to strong positive selection afterwards. As the so-called gene–culture coevolutionary model suggests, the cultural evolution of dairy farming tightly entwined with the biological evolution of LP over millennia, and these processes are likely to have profoundly influenced the genetic composition of European populations.


2.       Historical role of milk and dairying


Approximately 11,700 years ago, after the last glacial period (“Ice age”), and the beginning of the New

Stone Age (Neolithic), in the region of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent and also in Anatolia, the hunting-gathering lifestyle characteristic of the Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic) was slowly replaced by conscious agricultural activities, and then it gradually spread to other parts of the Middle East, the Caucasus region, Europe and Africa [18].

The first opportunity for milk consumption came when the ancestors of sheep (Ovis aries), goat (Capra

hircus) and cattle (Bos taurus) were domesticated in the area between the Zagros and Taurus Mountains, probably in the middle Euphrates valley, 11,000 years ago in the case of goats and sheep, and 10,500 years ago in the case of cattle. Some researchers even argue that the aim of the domestication of the wild goat (Capra aegagrus), the wild sheep (Ovis orientalis) and the aurochs (Bos primigenius) was to establish an opportunity for regular milk consumption [18], [27].


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