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Lactase persistence and the Cultural History of Europe

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The importance of milk in Europe's history

A major training network helped develop the careers of experienced and early-stage researchers in the field of archaeometry or archaeological science. In parallel, they explored the origin and impact of dairying in Europe, seeking to determine whether or not milk was part of a so-called secondary product revolution.

Climate Change and Environment

Important scientific and educational goals were achieved in the 'Lactase persistence and the cultural history of Europe' (LECHE) project. Together with the researchers in training, the group generated fruitful discussion on the early history of dairy products and the importance of milk usage. The project focused on lactase persistence, a trait believed to have been absent in the first Neolithic farmers. Lactase persistence is the continued activity of the enzyme lactase that digests helps digest lactose in milk. As such, the central question was whether milk was important before farming or if it became important only once farming was well-established in Europe (secondary product revolution). A total of 13 European organisations trained 13 PhDs and further supervised 2 recently graduated PhDs — 1 each in Denmark, France, Ireland and the Netherlands, 2 in Sweden, 3 in Germany, and 4 in the United Kingdom. Training partners' expertise covered ancient DNA research, ancient organic compounds, and classic archaeology and osteology. Students hailed from both within and outside the EU, with training events comprised of summer schools, workshops and conferences. Combining data from the various areas of project activities, LECHE was able to address its original scientific question and show that lactase persistence co-evolved as the farming lifestyle spread. All findings indicate that milk was important from the early Neolithic stages, leading the network to conclude that the secondary product revolution was of lesser importance than previously thought. Project work led to 12 theses, a number of scientific papers in journals and a LECHE book, 'May contain traces of milk – Investigating the role of dairy farming and milk consumption in the European Neolithic'. The PDF version of which is available for downloading. Some interesting findings are that milk was being used in Saharan Africa from the fifth millennium BC, that cheese making occurred in Europe during the sixth millennium BC, and migrations drove the introduction of the farming lifestyle to Europe. Other LECHE achievements include two summer schools, three workshops, two industrial meetings, various interactions and site visits, and two international conferences. Several of the PhD students have graduated and are presently developing their scientific careers in other research groups. All were trained in the latest archaeometry technologies as well as in communication, management and fund-raising skills.


Milk, training, secondary product revolution, lactase persistence, farming

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