When a single genetic mutation first let ancient Europeans drink milk, it set the stage for a continental upheaval.
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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 artefacts. 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. 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.
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.
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 populations4. 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.
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.”
“It’s been an enduring question in archaeology — whether we’re descended from Middle Eastern farmers or indigenous hunter-gatherers.”
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.. 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?