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Last Update: 2014-01-28   Source: Star Projects
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Milk and the making of Europe

What impact did the introduction of milk to our diets have on our early society? By examining Neolithic artefacts and bones, an EU-funded project has contributed to our understanding of how Europeans began to abandon their hunter-gathering lifestyle in favour of farming.
As part of its work, the LeCHe research network found milk residues trapped in mud-made cheese-strainers dating from around 7 000 years ago. The pottery, hidden in archaeological sites in Poland, hosts the earliest prehistoric evidence for cheese-making.

© Sergey Nivens -

A direct benefit of the LeCHE project is a better understanding of our prehistory, according to project coordinator Anders Götherström, assistant professor at the evolutionary biology centre at Uppsala University, Sweden.

“This is especially when it comes to lactose usage,” he says. “We have shown that the consumption of unprocessed milk played an important part in shaping Europe and the people living on the continent.”

This has long been a point of some contention. Ancient DNA analyses have suggested that lactase persistence – the ability to digest milk as an adult – was absent in the first Neolithic farmers. LeCHE’s researchers wanted to narrow down the date and region in which this genetic trait first appeared most widespread.

They drew on the latest genetic studies of modern humans and domestic animals to identify markers of specific traits, and also searched for these in ancient remains. All data collected during the four-year project has since been integrated into a large database.

Fortuitously, the project began just as the ‘genomic revolution’ was taking off, with novel ways of sequencing DNA becoming widely available. This enabled the consortium to make significant advances in analysing ancient human DNA, a task which up until then had been extremely difficult.

The project’s work provides new insights into ancient human diet and early food processing technologies for low-lactose milk products and has been featured by some 80 media outlets, including Nature, ScienceDaily, the BBC and The New York Times.

Kick-starting careers

“This project had two main parts – an educational goal and a scientific goal,” says Dr Götherström. “In the scientific part, we wanted to find out what part milk and dairy products played in Europe’s pre-history. And in the educational part, we wanted to train a set of young scientists and give them access to the best facilities in Europe, thereby kick-starting their careers in science.”

By bringing together leading archaeologists, zoo-archaeologists and geneticists, the project provided the perfect environment for up-and-coming researchers to learn and develop. State-of-the-art methods were used to answer clearly focused, important and emotive questions with widespread repercussions.

The multidisciplinary project provided valuable training for young European researchers, helping to further their careers in science.

“We produced a number of great researchers that will be active in this field for several decades,” says Dr Götherström. “We revealed that dairy products already played an important role at an early stage of the Neolithic age, and we strengthened evidence of migration during this period. In short, we produced trained scientists, and provided for a better understanding of this period in time.”

‘May Contain Traces of Milk – investigating the role of dairy farming and milk consumption in the European Neolithic’. It features chapters explaining the different methods that researchers can use to analyse archaeological remains. Initially planned as a reference for undergraduates, the book has become a standard in many university courses, the project team says. It is available for free as a download on the project’s website.


Project details

  • Project acronym: LeCHe
  • Participants: Sweden (Coordinator), Ireland, United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, France
  • FP7 Proj. N° 215362
  • Total costs: € 3 316 271
  • EU contribution: € 3 316 271
  • Duration: September 2008 to August 2012

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