Europeans Have Only Been Able to Digest Milk for 4,000 Years

Researchers found that until four millennia ago, Europeans weren’t drinking cow milk or getting down with cheese, and they only developed the ability to do so after Russian herders arrived from the Great Steppes.

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Nov 29 2015, 8:00pm

If you're a lactose-intolerant European, a new study may help you narrow some of your ancestral roots without paying a cent to Ancestry.com. Contrary to long-held scientific belief that Anatolian farmers introduced milk tolerance to Europe around 6500 BC, a new study in the journal Nature found that Russian herders actually brought milk tolerance to Europe just 4,000 years ago. (And here we were giving flack to Russian cheese.)

"Everyone assumed it came to Europe with the first farmers," said Dr. Bastien Llamas, one of the co-authors of the study.

READ: Milk Doesn't Do Shit for Your Bones

According to ABC News Australia, earlier this year Dr. Llamas and colleagues determined that Europeans descended from three groups of ancient migrants: Stone-Age hunter-gatherers, Anatolian farmers, and Russian nomadic herders. It was thought that the Anatolian farmers introduced milk tolerance to Europe, as they had been keeping cows since around 6500 BC.

But the new study found that until four millennia ago, Europeans weren't drinking cow milk or getting down with cheese, and they only developed the ability to do so after Russian herders arrived from the Great Steppes. "Suddenly 4,000 years ago, there's a revolution when the Steppe herders brought the enzymes they needed," Dr Llamas told ABC News.

The study looked at the DNA of 230 Eurasians that lived from 6500 to 300 BC, and found that the Russian herders brought with them a genetic mutation that leads to a lifelong production of lactase, the enzyme that helps us digest the lactose in milk. Like most mammals, the other groups living in Europe at the time lost the ability to digest lactose after they were weaned as infants. The study also established some links between the rise of agriculture and resistance to tuberculosis and leprosy. As hunter-gatherers found a more reliable source of food by growing crops, they began to live in tighter quarters with one another. The proximity led to the development of disease resistance.

Statuesque Scandinavians can also thank the Russian herders for introducing height to Europe. Dr. Llamas told ABC News that likewise, Anatolians brought the shorter stature associated with the Mediterranean, as well as lighter skin color.

READ: Breast Milk Is the Blueprint for a New Cow Milk

While Russian cheese isn't held at the same regard as the heralded cheeses from France, Italy, England and elsewhere, cheese-lovers of the world should reserve some gratitude for the lactose-tolerant Russian herders from long ago. It's fitting in a way, then, that given the current embargo on European Union cheese in Russia, Russians are looking to bring some of the European cheese making expertise back home.

That said, it's still messed up that they bulldozed a cheese mountain.