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.

Oct 21, 2014
Bob Grant

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.”

In addition to the insights they garnered regarding the genetic makeup of ancient Europeans, the study’s authors also contributed to the methodological advancement of extracting useable ancient DNA by learning that the petrous bones of the skull are ideal for such analyses. “The high percentage DNA yield from the petrous bones exceeded those from other bones by up to 183-fold,” study coauthor Ron Pinhasi from the UCD Earth Institute and UCD School of Archaeology, University College Dublin, said in a statement. “This gave us anywhere between 12 percent and almost 90 percent human DNA in our samples compared to somewhere between 0 percent and 20 percent obtained from teeth, fingers and rib bones.”