Support Provided ByLearn More
Ancient WorldsAncient Worlds

Drink Up: Farmers May Have Conquered Europe By Drinking Milk

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Archaeology has been brimming in recent years with intriguing new—and beverage-related—theories about how and why civilizations rose. Beer, for example, has been recently theorized as the reason behind the advent of civilization, period. Other recent research suggests milk may have catalyzed the spread of farming in Europe.

Andrew Curry, writing for Nature News:

Support Provided ByLearn More

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.

Some archaeologists think milk may have given farmers and herders a leg up on hunters and gatherers in Europe.

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.

Changes in diet and advances in culinary techniques appear to underpin many of the changes the human species has undergone. The simple act of cooking, for example, may have led to drastic changes in our anatomy and physiology. To learn more, skip to chapter 2 (14:50) in the NOVA scienceNOW episode below:

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.