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Lactase persistence and the Cultural History of Europe

Final Report Summary - LECHE (Lactase persistence and the Cultural History of Europe)

When LeCHE (Lactase persistence and the Cultural History of Europe) was initiated, we aimed for a set of educational as well as a set of scientific objectives. Our foremost important goal was to produce a number of top researchers within or close to the field of archaeometry. But at the same time we aimed at tackling the classic question of the secondary product revolution, and to address this question from a variety of angles. Within the project, the hypothesis of the secondary project revolution was defined as lactase persistence became advantageous later in the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age when pastoralism was more firmly established, larger areas of land had been cleared for grazing and fresh milk became much more significant as a dietary commodity. As opposed to lactase persistence being advantageous already at the beginning of the neolithisation, and as a consequence of unprocessed milk being important in the contemporary catalogue of nutritions.

The educational objective were detailed down to producing 13 Ph.D.s (ESR), and also to further supervise two recently graduated Ph.D.s (ER). We were 13 European organisations who took upon us to carry out this training; 4 in the UK, 3 in Germany, 2 in Sweden and 1 in Denmark, Ireland, The Netherlands, and France respectively. These 13 organisations participated in the ITN LeCHE. Together they constituted an amazing assemblage of scientific possibility. Within University of Uppsala, University of Copenhagen, Trinity College Dublin, and JGU in Mainz we listed some of the most celebrated agents within ancient DNA research, with Oxford University, Stockholm University, University of York, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and University of Bristol we listed some of the most celebrated groups in ancient organic compounds, and with Museum national d'Histoire Naturelle, Römisch Germanische Kommission, and Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen we listed up to date knowledge and methods in classic archaeology and osteology. The students were recruited both from within and outside EU. They originated in Norway, France, the UK, the USA, Iceland, Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands (although we had applications four continents when we announced the positions). The training of the 13 ERS and the two ERs were to take part mainly through local supervision within one of these 13 organization, but also through joint supervision with other PIs from the ITN, and a number of training events gathering all students from the ITN. The training events consisted of summerschools, workshops, and conferences.

We had an equally ambitious idea for the scientific part of the project. As the ITN harbored classical archaeological and anthropological departments as well as genetic and chemistry department, and all with an interest in the early usage of milk, we expected to produce 13 doctoral thesis and an appropriate amount of published papers to sustain those thesis within the ITN. And all of these work were to be linked to the early usage of milk. Specifically, we were interested in solving the general question on wether milk was an important factor when Europe turned to farming, or if it was a part of a secondary revolution (that is, if it became important only when farming was well established all over Europe). We aimed at being able to provide a good discussion on the early history of dairy products and the importance of milk usage during the final conference, where much of the produced data could be aired.

As I write up the final report, we have two international conferences, two summerschhols, three workshops, two industrial meetings, and a number of interactions and site visits behind us. Several of the LeCHE Ph.D. Students have graduated and are now moving on with their scientific careers in other research groups within and outside of Europe. They have all been trained in the latest technologies within archaeometry, and also in skills such as communication, management, and fund-raising. As they take their next step in their professional life, they do not only have this knowledge, they also have a formidable surface of contacts within the field as they know all the other former LeCHE students as well as the former LeCHE PIs.

In retrospect we consider the educational part of LeCHE a success. We did carry out all important tasks. And we have provided Europe and the rest of the world with 15 well trained researchers.

The scientific production is naturally cored with the Ph.D. Thesis and the LeCHE book, all provided by the students within the IT. All of them (12 thesis and the LeCHE book) have been produced during the temporal span of this report. There is a number of scientific papers in various journals supporting these thesis. I especially want to point out four of these. The first two being produced by Melanie Salque and her supervisor Richard Eversehd, and dealing with organic remains in pottery. By investigating residues of milk fat in pottery from the fifth millennium BC and originating in Saharan Africa, they were able to show that milk was being used in this area at this time (Nature 2012). Using a similar technique they were able to show that cheese making occurred in Europe during the sixth millennium BC (Nature 2013). And by partly relying on LeCHE produced data, Skoglund et al were able to show that the introduction of the farming lifestyle in Europe was driven by migrations (Science 2012). When scientific results of this dignity are published, they naturally fuel much discussion within the international scientific community. It is thus with content I am able to point out that LeCHE produced research was in the core of the global scientific discussion several times while the ITN was active. But I also want to draw the attention to the work carried out by Pascal Gebaut and her supervisor Mark Thomas. Such as their report on the evolution of lactase persistence in Europe (ProcRocy 2011). It was by combining data from various parts of LeCHE that they were able to address our original scientific question, and show that lactase persistence co-evolved with the spread of the farming lifestyle, and thus occurred at an early stage during the neolithic. All LeCHE data points to milk being important from the earliest stages of the neolithisation, and thus, the secondary product revolution seems to have been of lesser importance than previously suggested.

Now, when we close LeCHE, we do it knowing that we have made a number of scientific advances, and we have also produced a number of capable researchers who are presently starting up their independent careers in different parts of the world.