Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Oct

How Grok Got Milk

Dairy, as I’ve discussed, is a somewhat hazy matter in the Primal Blueprint. With adequate reasons from solid thinkers both for and against, I’ve relegated dairy to the provisional, the peripheral, the speculative even as I choose to modestly indulge in it. As with most Primal gray areas, some forms appear less controversial than others. Raw, fermented, full fat dairy offers much more health benefit with fewer reservations than processed, low fat renderings. (Isn’t that always the case?) From a Primal perspective, however, dairy still remains somewhat of an enigma. Hardly one of the original, universal foods in human evolution, milk entered the scene at a surprisingly late date – only some 9,000 years ago with the advent of animal domestication. Researchers have long traced the “progression” of Grok‘s dairy intake from the Middle East into Europe, where milk actually became an unusually significant dietary staple. New research into the dairy “drift” now offers more details than ever surrounding this relatively isolated, albeit dramatic, evolutionary event.

Dairy herding, experts believe, took off some 9,000 years ago in present day Iran as a natural extension of the unfolding Agricultural Revolution. The first dairy farmers apparently used goats’ milk before they took on the hefty job of domesticating the rather large wild cattle in the region. (Probably not a bad idea.) Recently, however, archeologists have stumbled upon discoveries that illustrate a fuller and unexpected picture of these first farmers. Excavations around Anatolia (part of modern day Turkey) suggest that these early farmers truly settled more long-term than previously thought. For nearly 2,000 years, this population stayed put rather than migrated further into new territory. (Talk about home bodies.) Not even the coastal areas around Anatolia reveal any evidence of the farmers’ relocation during this period. The spread of dairy herding was apparently a slower and more selective process than previously thought.

Researchers have also been surprised by another new discovery based on Neolithic bones from Turkey. Despite the long-time establishment of dairy herding, the recovered bones of this Mesopotamian farm population didn’t indicate lactose tolerance. (Yes, do the double take.) Apparently, they didn’t like the milk itself but used it to make fermented, no-lactose products like yogurt, kefir and cheese. Their consumption pattern differs dramatically from that of Europeans after dairy herding spread throughout Northern regions.

The question of when and how dairy consumption (as well as lactose tolerance) later developed in Europe has been less than clear, but recent research is overturning old assumptions. Experts have known that farmers from the Middle East region eventually moved northward. As a result of their immigration/influence, herding caught on throughout much of Europe and added a novel and key component to the Northern European diet. Prevailing thought has centered on the notion of peaceful collaboration between the new herding settlers and existing hunter-gatherer inhabitants. The Stone Age hunter-gatherers, many experts agreed, must have learned dairy farming from the immigrant groups.

Newer interpretations, however, illustrate a less collaborative, more contentious series of events. Although the early farmers made their way in fits and starts through Southeastern Europe, their spread eventually (between 7000 and 5500 BC) took on a surprisingly swift, more massive and definitive nature. The movement seemed to have turned on an evolutionary dime. This time frame, significantly, coincided with the advent of true milk consumption– initially in the region of modern-day Austria and Hungary and then gradually throughout Northern Europe. The new farming population and its migration was – in this time period, in this new land – shaped by the milk mutation often called lactase persistence, the genetic “mistake” in which early life lactase production never shuts off.

In the Northern reaches of Europe, the new ability to drink milk introduced a whole new food supply that could sustain humans throughout the long hard winters and through the unpredictable famines. It also offered an additional key source of vitamin D. The colder temperatures in the Northern regions allowed for better storage conditions, a circumstance that likely encouraged consumption. Those who had the mutation won out in the immigrant farmer group because they and their children had a better chance of survival.

Previous theory suggested the gradual interbreeding of the immigrant group with existing hunter-gatherers. Not so, say researchers now. In addition to the grisly discovery of a Neolithic Age mass grave (the remains in which indicate violent beating and bludgeoning), bones from the period reveal two distinct genetic lines, one lactose tolerant (the farmer immigrants) and the other not (existing hunter-gatherers that had come to Europe some 46,000 years prior). Archeological remains confirm that modern day Northern Europeans are descended from that immigrant farming group. With evidence of a wholly different culture, religion and language, the settlers apparently resisted rather than absorbed the original population, and their genetic line as well as agricultural practices, eventually won out. Today, the genetic pattern lingers. Lactose tolerance levels increase in a northwesterly progression across Northern and Western Europe and into the Northwest tip of Africa, where lactose tolerance hits a peak 80%.

Fascinating stuff, eh? So, do the tales of dietary-based segregation and mass graves change my stance on dairy? No. The truth is, I just love the history. Evolutionary drama floats my boat, and I know a few of you out there dig it, too. As for the PB, these recent insights simply offer more confirmation that dairy tolerance follows some vast genetic patterns but ultimately comes down to very personal factors.

Although many populations throughout the world have eaten small amounts of fermented dairy for millennia, the hub of overall dairy consumption – both fermented and nonfermented – was, generally speaking, Europe – and mostly Northern Europe at that. Yes, if your ancestors hail from these regions, you have a greater probability of being lactose tolerant, but 80% is still 80%. That residual 20% is nothing to shake a stick at. (And speaks nothing of casein tolerance.) That means plenty of people as thoroughly Norwegian as can be, for example, will find themselves making frequent restroom trips after a double scoop ice cream cone (not the only reason to skip the ice cream, of course). As for the vast majority of the world’s population, pockets of 0% lactose tolerance certainly exist, but there are plenty of exceptions to the “rule.” It’s yet another reason to gravitate toward fermented dairy (as well as raw and grass-fed whenever possible). Finally, it’s also compelling reason to formally examine your dairy tolerance with an experimental period of abstinence or – on the flip-side – a cautious sample of pastured cream or aged cheese if you’re really inclined.

The world, the modern world in particular, is a big and complex place. Geography doesn’t tell the whole story. As for the researchers’ map, it illustrates impressive waves of migratory patterns and population-based gradations, but it’s hardly a measure or prediction of individual experience. Nonetheless, our respective ancestors live somewhere in the shadows of that cartographic tale, as sweeping and suggestive it is of the tumult those groups lived through. Evolutionary happenstance makes for an intriguing design – from a safe distance.

Hope you enjoyed. Comments, questions, additional stories and studies of interest you’d like to leave for the community? Thanks for your thoughts today.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. The neolithic mass grave … the remains of Abel (the hunter) after his altercation with Cain (the farmer)?

    Great info Mark, thanks.

    Twice now I have gone dairy free for about 30 days, and have not noticed a difference in health, just leanness. I’ll thank my norwegian background for that I guess!

    Jeffery wrote on October 28th, 2010
  2. I occasionally reinforce the ‘naturalness’ of drinking milk by telling my teen patients that if Mother Nature intended humans to drink milk forever, they would have a closer relationship with their mothers.
    It tends to ‘center’ the discussion somewhat.

    wikiderm wrote on October 29th, 2010
  3. I don’t know if the “other animals don’t drink milk” argument is even valid.

    First, other animals do on occasion consume milk, preditors will kill the pregnant and it’s not like they throw the milk sacs aside and eat the rest. Secondly, anyone with a farm and cats will probably have stories of cats sneaking a lick or two from the cows.

    Second, why did we start drinking milk? Because we had domestic cows. Do you know of any other animal that has domestic pets? Its not like a wild ox is going to sit around and let a monkey milk it. If other animals had that ability, they just might start drinking milk too. Some animal/human coorelations don’t really work because there is a vast difference between us in a few areas.

    I have read the pro/anti milk arguments along with the pro/anti raw milk arguments. I have decided (well for now, until I see new info) to drink raw from my one trusted dairy. I have the perk of living in the Bay Area of Cali so raw milk is easy to come by. Not cheap, but its a luxury I rather enjoy.

    Espresso is another one I enjoy.. hopefully the rest of my healthy makes up for that unhealthy :)

    Desdemona wrote on November 4th, 2010
    • In the insect world, ants “milk” aphids.

      Motobu O. Samurai wrote on November 4th, 2010
      • Ahhh yes, I should know about those little guys. I don’t think they are milking what is made for aphid young though. I haven’t read much into it but I was under the impression it was a symboic (sorry, right word?) relationship created by evolution.

        Desdemona wrote on November 4th, 2010
        • I think the word you’re looking for is symbiosis or symbiotic relationship; that is true the “milk” isn’t for the aphid young, but it does demonstrate that consuming the secretions of another species does occur… and it is a source of nutrients for the ants just as much as milk is for us, the big question though is did the aphids always have the ants to “milk” them and why did the ants start doing this anyway after all they eat all kinds of insects but they don’t eat the aphids, interesting relationship.

          M. O. Samurai wrote on November 4th, 2010
  4. Great post. I’m against dairy. Regardless from the lactose it contains lectins, hormones and protease inhibitors.

    You mention fermented dairy products that contain no lactose. I looked for these products, but never found them.

    Hans wrote on November 5th, 2010
  5. I didn’t read all the comments (have to hurry up and get outside because I’ve been so lazy the last week) so somebody else might have mentioned what I’m going to talk about already. It’s how I think people first started drinking milk, based on modern evidence. I met a man who told me a story from when he was a kid in Jamaica, where he says there are still wild cows. He was out in nature with his dad and they spotted a lactating wild cow so his dad snuck up behind it where it couldn’t see him and started milking it, squirting the milk into his mouth straight from the udder. Apparently as long as the cow doesn’t see you and you milk it properly it will think you are its calf but if it does catch you sneaking up on it or if you milk it wrong causing it to feel pain it will kick. Anyways my guess is that before cows were ever domesticated this was the method used by inventive primitives for getting a quick drink of milk, maybe with a varying success rate.

    Tim wrote on February 2nd, 2011
  6. How did we end up producing lactase when lactase is present in raw milk…
    Either way, glad we do :)

    Suvetar wrote on April 11th, 2011
  7. Milk is not, and never has been, a key source of Vitamin D.  You risk perpetuating a common misconception. Vitamin D was added to milk in the mid-1900s to prevent rickets.

    The facts:
    It does not occur in milk naturally; the amounts in milk have been shown to vary from those listed on the carton; and the amount of Vitamin D in milk is too low to prevent the diseases with which epidemiological studies have linked it, like cancer and MS.

    Sunlight and supplements. are necessary for optimal serum levels. 

    coriha wrote on January 6th, 2012
  8. With scientific testing indicating Casein to be one of the biggest triggers for cancer, it is also one of the biggest products to avoid. Why eat something that causes risk to your health?

    Ele wrote on October 28th, 2012
    • I’ve seen this in several vegan books/websites. Problem is, almost all of those books/websites are so totally biased against all animal products that I don’t trust them to have unbiased, truthful imformation–those of the “animal protein will kill you” school.

      shrimp4me wrote on December 25th, 2013
  9. I love milk, and I usually drink one or two 8 oz glasses of it per day. Whole milk is especially good. I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence, but since I switched to whole milk I’ve stopped getting acne (I used to get a few spots around that time of the month).

    Heda wrote on May 18th, 2013
  10. I love dairy :) I am like 25% Irish and probably an equal or greater amount English, the rest being small amounts of Dutch, Welsh, Scottish, etc. and also 1/64 Cuban! So, I definitely have a high probability of digesting dairy well, and turns out, I do! I only drink raw, local, grass-fed milk and cream, and I eat Kerrygold with every meal almost. It’s just in my genes to love dairy and my body loves it. I do have acne still but it’s way less severe than it used to be and I attribute it mostly to my lack of activity and lack of sunlight across my chest and back, where it seems to concentrate. If I’m at a gathering or event where there’s dishes with pasteurized cheese or something like that, I kind of just go for it and I’ve yet to have a reaction, so clearly my immune system is pretty resilient since going Primal. I’m lucky to have been breastfed, vaginally-birthed and also not exposed to heavy amounts of house cleaner and hand sanitizer and spent a lot of time outside. That stuff has a huge effect on the immune system regardless of how poor or great the Mom’s nutrition was. I think you should do a post on that kind of thing, how those early environmental factors affect our future health. Super interesting topic.

    Sam wrote on September 29th, 2014

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