During the Neolithic period up until the Late Bronze Age, lactose intolerance was prevalent 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 did humans take advantage of this vital nutritional source without suffering 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 investigate ceramics and deposits on their surface from the site of Sławęcinek in central Poland. By examining the proportion of curd proteins, they were able to directly detect the practice of cheesemaking and other curd-enriching dairy processing, as per the study published in the journal Royal Society of Open Science .
A vital element of ancient subsistence strategies, milk was processed into cheese and other dairy products like yogurt, leading to a reduced lactose content in the milk, making it comparatively palatable for digestion. Milk was processed from a variety of animals for this purpose, indicating diverse and varied dietary practices.
Lead author, Miranda Evans, PhD student at Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, said in a press release by the University of York , “The proteomic results showed that the ancient residues closely resembled both the modern cheesemaking residues and cheese itself and not whole milk. This reveals that the people of Sławęcinek practiced cheesemaking or another form of curd-enriching dairy processing.”
Ceramic strainer and collared flasks found to have high-curd content indicating the production of dairy products (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 the period, there is evidence of dairy consumption during the Neolithic era . This ties up with the larger sedentary patterns exhibited by human beings as they began settling down and practicing agriculture, domesticating plants and animals in the process.
For example, animal bones with kill patterns expected for dairy herds, dairy lipids in ceramic vessels, and dairy proteins in ancient dental calculus or plaque all suggest that dairy products were a significant part of the diet of early farmers. A 2012 study published in Nature alluded to the art of cheese making being 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 Archaeology at the University of York, said :
“These results contribute significantly to our understanding of the use of dairy products by some of the earliest farmers of Central Europe. Whilst previous research has shown that dairy products were widely available in some European regions during this period, here, for the first time, we have clear evidence for a diversified 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 of 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 Late Bronze Age, lactose intolerance was a common condition in almost everyone in Europe. As the genetic mutation that enabled adults to produce lactase became widespread, people were able to consume dairy without experiencing adverse effects. This mutation is believed to have first appeared among populations that depended on dairy farming as a significant food source, such as those in Northern Europe.
In contemporaneous 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. 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 corroborated by the current study too.
Dr Jasmine Lundy from the Department of Archaeology, concluded, “This study highlights how complementary lipid and proteomic analyses are, particularly in understanding the use of the ceramic vessel over time. From this, for example, we could see that not only did some techniques waterproof or seal the ceramics but also what foods were being produced in them.”
Top image: Cattle have been used for their milk production since at least Neolithic times. Source: adrianpluskota/Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey