During the Neolithic period up to the Late Bronze Age, lactose intolerance was common among the European population. However, a genetic mutation eventually became widespread, 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 have people benefited from this essential nutritional source without experiencing the side effects? New research sheds light on the methods used by Late Neolithic farmers to make dairy products more digestible.
Dairy processing and the Northern European diet
The team of scientists and archaeologists from the universities of York, Cambridge, Toruń and Kraków used a multi-stranded proteomic and lipid analysis approach to examine ceramics and deposits on their surface from the Sławęcinek site in central Poland. By examining the proportion of curd protein, they were able to directly detect the practice of cheesemaking and other curd-enriching dairy processing, according to the study published in the journal Royal Society of Open Science .
An essential part of ancient subsistence strategies, milk was made into cheese and other dairy products such as yogurt, leading to reduced levels of lactose in the milk, making it relatively palatable to the digestive system. Milk from different animals was processed for this purpose, indicating diverse and varied dietary habits.
Lead author, Miranda Evans, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, said in a press release from the University of York: “The proteomic results showed that the ancient residues closely resembled both modern cheesemaking residues and the cheese itself and not whole milk. This shows that the people of Sławęcinek were engaged in cheese making or some other form of curd-enriching dairy processing.”
Ceramic sieve and collared flasks were found to have high curd content, indicating dairy product production (Evans et al./ The Royal Society )
These findings provide new insights into the diets and food production methods of early farmers. Despite widespread lactose intolerance during that period, there is evidence of dairy consumption during the Neolithic Age. This ties into the larger sedentary patterns people exhibited when they settled down and practiced agriculture, taming plants and animals.
For example, animal bones with death patterns expected for dairy herds, dairy lipids in ceramic vessels, and dairy proteins in ancient tartar or dental plaque all suggest that dairy products were an important part of the diet of early farmers. A 2012 study published in Nature alluded to the art of cheesemaking dating back at least 7,500 years in Europe, as evidenced by traces of dairy fat in ancient ceramic fragments.
Dr. Harry Robson, from the Department of Archeology at York University, said:
“These results contribute significantly to our understanding of the use of dairy products by some of the earliest farmers in Central Europe. While previous research has shown that dairy products were widely available in some European regions during this period, here we have clear evidence for a diversified dairy herd, including cattle, sheep and goats, for the first time from the analysis of ceramics.”
Lactose intolerance: a history of indigestion
Lactose intolerance is a condition in which the body cannot digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. This intolerance is caused by a deficiency of lactase, an enzyme produced in the small intestine that breaks down lactose into simpler sugars for the body to absorb.
During the Neolithic period and until the Late Bronze Age, lactose intolerance was a common condition in almost everyone in Europe. When the genetic mutation that enabled adults to produce lactase became widespread, people could consume dairy without experiencing any ill effects. This mutation is believed to have first appeared among populations that depended on dairy farming as a major source of food, such as those in Northern Europe.
Today, 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 are lactose intolerant. In contrast, lactose intolerance is less common in populations with a long history of dairy farming and consumption, such as in Northern and Western Europe – this is also confirmed by the current study.
Dr. Jasmine Lundy from the Department of Archeology concluded: “This study shows how complementary lipid and proteomic analyzes are, especially in understanding the use of the ceramic vessel over time. For example, we could see that some techniques are not only waterproofing or sealing the ceramics, but also what food was produced in them.
Top image: Cattle have been used for milk production since at least the Neolithic Age. Source: adrianpluskota/Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey