Agriculture / Article / Dairying / Europe / ILRIComms / Nutrition / Pastoralism

Europe’s ‘milk revolution’: First Neolithic cheese-making, then a genetic mutation allowing lactose persistence


Oscypek, a ‘must taste’ when visiting Polish mountains, is the most famous cheese in Poland today; it is made from salted sheep milk, smoked and formed in traditional wooden forms (photo credit: Tom Karas/

In 2011, Mélanie Roffet-Salque, a geochemist at the University of Bristol, UK, found signatures of abundant milk fats — evidence that early farmers, living 7,000 years ago in Poland, ‘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. Many of them have come from a €3.3-million (US$4.4-million) project that started in 2009 and has involved archaeologists, chemists and geneticists. The findings from this group illuminate the profound ways that dairy products have shaped human settlement on the continent.

‘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. . . .’

Read the whole interesting article by Andrew Curry, Archaeology: The milk revolution, in Nature 500, 20–22 (01 Aug 2013) doi:10.1038/500020a

Read a related article on ways milk production has shaped our evolution: Got milk?: Dairy found essential to prehistoric development in Africa–New research, 24 Jun 2012.

One thought on “Europe’s ‘milk revolution’: First Neolithic cheese-making, then a genetic mutation allowing lactose persistence

  1. An interesting story. If you check the Nature article there is an interesting map about the frequency of lactase gene expression in adults for the Old World with a hotspot in sub-Saharan West Africa, less so in East Africa and a ”cold spot” in China and surrounding geographic areas.

    But no ancient cheese making culture in sub-Saharan Africa. Why?

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