Neolithic solutions to lactose intolerance revealed in new study

Lactose intolerance was common in the European population from the Neolithic period until the Late Bronze Age. However, the genetic mutation eventually became widespread, allowing adults to produce lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose in the body. But milk had become an important part of the human diet even before that. So how did people benefit from this important source of nutrition without suffering side effects? New research sheds light on methods used by Late Neolithic farmers to make dairy products more digestible.

Milk processing and the Northern European diet

A team of researchers and archaeologists from the universities of York, Cambridge, Toruń and Krakow used multistranded proteome and lipid analysis to study ceramics and the deposits on their surfaces from the Sławęcinek area in central Poland. By examining the proportion of proteins in the curd, they were able to directly detect cheese-making and other dairy processing that enriches the cheese, as in the study published in the journal. Royal Society of Open Science .

An important part of the old subsistence strategies was the processing of milk into cheese and other dairy products such as yogurt, which resulted in a reduction in the milk’s lactose content, making it relatively palatable for digestion. Milk was processed from different 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 University of York press release: “The proteomic results showed that the ancient remains closely resembled both modern cheese-making residues and cheese itself, not whole milk. This reveals that the inhabitants of Sławęcinek practiced cheese-making or other curd-enriching dairy processing .

The ceramic strainer and collared bottles contain abundant curds, suggesting dairy production (Evans et al./ 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 milk consumption during the Neolithic period. This is related to the larger sedentary patterns that humans showed when they began to settle and practice agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals.

For example, animal bones with a kill pattern expected for dairy cattle, dairy lipids in ceramic vessels, and milk proteins in ancient calculus or plaque all suggest that dairy products were a significant part of the diet of early farmers. A study published in 2012 Nature suggested that the art of cheese making was at least 7,500 years old in Europe, as evidenced by traces of milk fat in ancient pieces of pottery.

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

“These results add significantly to our understanding of dairy use by some of the earliest farmers in Central Europe. Although previous studies have shown that dairy products were widely available in some areas of Europe during this period, for the first time we have clear evidence from pottery analysis of a diverse range of dairy herds, including cattle, sheep and goats.

Lactose Intolerance: A History of Digestive Disorders

Lactose intolerance is a condition in which the body is unable to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products. This intolerance is caused by a lack 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 up until the Late Bronze Age, lactose intolerance was a common affliction in almost every part of Europe. When the genetic mutation that allowed adults to produce lactase became common, people were able to consume dairy products without ill effects. This mutation is thought to have first appeared in populations that depended on milk production as a major source of food, such as in northern Europe.

Today, lactose intolerance affects a significant part of the world’s population, especially 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 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 said: “This study highlights how complementary lipid and proteome analysis are, particularly in understanding the use of ceramic vessels over time. From this we could see, for example, that some techniques not only blocked or sealed pottery, but also what foodstuffs were produced in them.”

Top photo: Cattle have been used for milk production at least since Neolithic times. Source: adrianpluskota/Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

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