Neolithic Solutions to Lactose Intolerance Revealed in New Study

During the Neolithic period until the Late Bronze Age, lactose intolerance was widespread among the European population. However, a genetic mutation eventually spread, allowing adults to produce lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose in the body. But milk had already become an important part of the human diet before then. So how did humans take advantage of this vital nutritional source without suffering its side effects? New research sheds light on methods used by Late Neolithic farmers to make dairy products more digestible.

Dairy processing and northern European food

The team of scientists and archaeologists from the Universities of York, Cambridge, Toruń and Krakow used a proteomics and multistrand lipid analysis approach to study ceramics and deposits on their surface from the Sławęcinek site in the central Poland. By examining the proportion of curd protein, they were able to directly detect the practice of cheese making and other dairy processing enriching the curd, according to the study published in the journal Royal Society for Open Science .

A vital part of ancient livelihood strategies, milk was processed into cheese and other dairy products like yogurt, which led to a reduction in the lactose content of the milk, making it relatively palatable. Milk was processed from a variety of animals for this purpose, indicating diverse and varied feeding practices.

Lead author Miranda Evans, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Archeology, said in a University of York press release: “The proteomic results showed that the ancient residues closely resembled both manufacturing residues of modern cheese and to the cheese itself and not to whole milk. This reveals that the people of Sławęcinek practiced cheese making or another form of dairy processing enriching the curd.

A ceramic strainer and necked flasks have a high curd content indicating dairy production (Evans et al./The Royal Society)

A ceramic strainer and necked flasks have a high curd content indicating the production of dairy products (Evans et al./ The Royal Society )

These discoveries provide new insights into the diets and food production methods of early farmers. Despite widespread lactose intolerance during the period, there is evidence of consumption of dairy products in Neolithic times. This ties in with the larger sedentary patterns exhibited by human beings when they began to settle and practice agriculture, domesticating plants and animals in the process.

For example, animal bones with expected destruction patterns for dairy herds, dairy lipids in ceramic vessels, and dairy proteins in ancient dental tartar or plaque all suggest that dairy products were an important part of the diet of early farmers. A 2012 study published in Nature hints at the art of cheese-making that is at least 7,500 years old in Europe, as evidenced by traces of dairy fat in ancient ceramic fragments.

Dr Harry Robson, from the Department of Archeology at the University of York, said:

“These results contribute significantly to our understanding of the use of dairy products by some of the early farmers in Central Europe. While previous research has shown that dairy products were widely available in parts of Europe during this period, here, for the first time, we have clear evidence of a diverse dairy herd, including cattle, sheep and goats, from the analysis of ceramics.

Lactose Intolerance: A History of Indigestion

Lactose intolerance is a condition where the body is unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. This intolerance is caused by a deficiency in lactase, an enzyme produced in the small intestine that breaks down lactose into simpler sugars that the body can absorb.

During the Neolithic period and until the end of the Bronze Age, lactose intolerance was a common condition among almost everyone in Europe. As the genetic mutation that allowed adults to produce lactase became widespread, people were able to consume dairy products without experiencing adverse effects. This mutation is thought to have first emerged among populations that relied on dairy farming as an important food source, such as those in northern Europe.

In contemporary times, lactose intolerance affects a significant portion of the world’s population, particularly in Africa, Asia and South America, where it is estimated that up to 90% of adults may be lactose intolerant. lactose. In contrast, lactose intolerance is less common in populations that have a long history of dairy farming and consumption, such as in Northern and Western Europe – this is also supported by the current study.

Dr Jasmine Lundy from the Department of Archeology concluded: “This study highlights the complementarity of lipid and proteomic analyses, particularly in understanding the use of the ceramic vessel over time. From this, for example, we could see that not only did certain techniques waterproof or seal ceramics, but also what foods were produced in them.

Top image: Cattle have been used for milk production since at least the Neolithic period. Source: adrianpluskota/Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

Leave a Comment