Ancient Europeans Were Lactose Intolerant

Five-thousand years after agricultural practices spread across Neolithic Europe, human populations remained unable to digest sugars from the milk of mammals.

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

From 2017 to 2022, Bob Grant was Editor in Chief of The Scientist, where he started in 2007 as a Staff Writer.

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Bauersfrau mit drei Kälbchen, by Henry Hetherington EmmersonWIKIMEDIA, NAGEL AUKTIONENWell after agriculture blossomed across Europe, its practitioners remained lactose intolerant, even as the consumption of milk and dairy products from domesticated animals became commonplace, according to new research. Studying ancient DNA extracted from skulls that dated from 5,700 BC to 800 BC, scientists from University College Dublin and their colleagues determined that ancient Europeans carried the genes for lactose intolerance. The team published its findings, which illustrate the genetic changes that lag behind cultural shifts, today (October 21) in Nature Communications.

“The genomes do seem to shift as new technologies come about,” coauthor and Trinity College Dublin research Daniel Bradley told the Washington Post. “You can’t look at this and think that farming and metallurgy are technologies that come into the culture by osmosis. They come with people. Genomes and technology migrate together.”

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