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.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.