Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How Mutant Dairy Farmers Took Over The World

Scientific American:
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. “They spread really rapidly into northern Europe from an archaeological point of view,” says Mark Thomas, a population geneticist at University College London. That wave of emigration left an enduring imprint on Europe, where, unlike in many regions of the world, most people can now tolerate milk. “It could be that a large proportion of Europeans are descended from the first lactase-persistent dairy farmers in Europe,” says Thomas....The single-nucleotide switch in Europe happened relatively recently. Thomas and his colleagues estimated the timing by looking at genetic variations in modern populations and running computer simulations of how the related genetic mutation might have spread through ancient populations. They proposed that the trait of lactase persistence, dubbed the LP allele, emerged about 7,500 years ago in the broad, fertile plains of Hungary.
Once the LP allele appeared, it offered a major selective advantage. In a 2004 study, researchers estimated that people with the mutation would have produced up to 19% more fertile offspring than those who lacked it. The researchers called that degree of selection “among the strongest yet seen for any gene in the genome”.
At some point, cities were established and dairy farmers became socially awkward (while I'm not a dairy farmer, I am socially awkward) and quit dominating societies.  Now they are the folks wearing white clothes and funny hats while showing cows at the fair.

The ones at our fair would wear white paper McDonalds cook hats.


  1. I look at the map above and see that all my immediate ancestors came the parts of Scandinavia in the 90% category. Needless to say, I am still a poster child for the American Dairy Association.

    Where my people come from, they had a pre-Christian creation myth that claimed the earth came in being when a giant cow licked the earth out of a block of ice. Cows are pretty damn important to us Vikings! They made us strong and large so we were able to kick serious butt wherever we chose to go.

  2. To my other point, some of those dairymen eventually mutated into Garrison Keillor's Norwegian bachelor farmers. But, yes, those cows really helped fuel the Viking war raids.