Monday, February 15, 2010

Fjordman: Did Lactose Tolerance Trigger the Indo-European Expansion?

Fjordman’s latest essay has been published at HonestThinking. Some excerpts are below:

Did Lactose Tolerance Trigger the Indo-European Expansion?

Following the rapid advances in our understanding of genetics in recent years a new branch of biological history or biohistory has emerged, where human history is seen through the prism of genetic changes and the theory of evolution. For my long essay Why Did Europeans Create the Modern World? I included biohistory as one of the aspects explaining different levels of accomplishment, informed especially by the book Understanding Human History by the American astrophysicist Michael H. Hart, which is available online as a pdf file. Another recent title is The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending from the University of Utah in the United States.

Evolution proceeds by changing the frequency of genetic variants known as “alleles.” An allele is one of two or more versions of the same gene. The advent of agriculture vastly increased the total amount of food available, as humans didn’t merely have to rely on food readily available in nature but could grow their own in addition to this. The larger and more permanent settlements associated with agriculture gave birth to new infectious diseases, as a critical mass of humans lived in close contact with each other and with domesticated animals and their germs. Food production allowed for the accumulation of wealth, trade specialization and the rise of nonproductive elites, who ruled others simply because they could.

Agriculture allowed those who practiced it to greatly expand their numbers, but it is distinctly possible that the nutritional quality of the food of early farmers was initially worse than that which had traditionally been available to hunter-gatherers. Consequently, the health of each individual was not necessarily better in the Neolithic period than it had been in the Paleolithic era. The bodies of those who practiced agriculture had to adapt to a new diet consisting of foods that had either not been eaten before or had previously been of only minor importance.

According to The 10,000 Year Explosion, “For example, we see changes in genes affecting transport of vitamins into cells. Similarly, vitamin D shortages in the new diet may have driven the evolution of light skin in Europe and northern Asia. Vitamin D is produced by ultraviolet radiation from the sun acting on our skin — an odd, plantlike way of going about things. Less is therefore produced in areas far from the equator, where UV flux is low. Since there is plenty of vitamin D in fresh meat, hunter-gatherers in Europe may not have suffered from vitamin D shortages and thus may have been able to get by with fairly dark skin. In fact, this must have been the case, since several of the major mutations causing light skin color appear to have originated after the birth of agriculture. Vitamin D was not abundant in the new cereal-based diet, and any resulting shortages would have been serious, since they could lead to bone malformations (rickets), decreased resistance to infectious diseases, and even cancer. This may be why natural selection favored mutations causing light skin, which allowed for adequate vitamin D synthesis in regions with little ultraviolet radiation.”
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Alcoholic drinks, which became important with the rise of agriculture, have plenty of bad side effects, yet essentially all agricultural peoples enjoyed some form of alcoholic brew. The consumption of fermented beverages containing modest amounts of alcohol could be beneficial to your health as drinking wine or beer provided some protection against waterborne pathogens. For this reason, alleles that reduced the risk of alcoholism prevailed among agricultural populations in Eurasia. Many of those who did not have extensive food production before the modern era, such as Australian Aborigines, Eskimos or Native Americans in North America, are particularly vulnerable to alcoholism and have special health problems more frequently than others when exposed to a Western diet.

Before the rise of agriculture no one past infancy, the first years of our lives when we drink human breast milk, could digest milk sugar, or lactose. Lactase is the name of the enzyme that allows us to digest the complex milk sugar. After cattle were domesticated, cow’s milk became a nutritious addition to the diet. Several different populations, all raising cattle or camels in Europe, East Africa and the Middle East, independently evolved the ability to digest milk for life. Genetic evidence indicates that such a mutation probably first occurred in central Europe, perhaps before 5000 BC. Pioneer farmers in northern Europe used crops from the Near East that were not necessarily ideally suited for a cooler, northern environment, and cow’s milk may have become an increasingly important staple for survival in these regions.

Read the rest at HonestThinking.


mace said...


Lactose tolerance might have been a necessary condition for Indo-European expansion,however I doubt that it was the 'trigger'.The early domestication of the horse gave Indo-Europeans a decisive military advantage over other ethnic groups and they took the opportunity.Contrast the dramatic Indo-European expansion with other lactose tolerant societies such as those of East Africa or the ME where horses were not domesticated until much later.
Nomadic tribes from the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans still had the military edge,through their ability to use horses, even over other Indo-Europeans,into historical times. The Spanish use of horses in the Americas and references from the Rig Veda are another obvious examples of the animal's effectivness as weapon.

Succesful expansion requires the elimination or subjugation of a region's previous inhabitants.To achieve that, I'd put my money on cavalry(or chariots) not on a full range of nutritious dairy products.

Takuan Seiyo said...


1. I know quite a few Japanese who are lactose intolerant, as are their parents and children.

2. The first white people the Japanese saw were the Russians, maybe 500 years ago. Among the many strange and frightening things the Japanese perceived in them were hirsuteness, poor hygiene, strong body odor etc. But the worst was a component of the latter that can be translated as "the stink that comes from eating butter." To this day, "batta kusai" -- butter stinker -- is a traditional insult aimed at Caucasians.

3. There may have been a link between developing an equestrian culture and lactose tolerance. That is yogurt, that developed when they carried milk in sheeps’ or goats’ stomach gourds tied to the saddle. Consider too where yogurt is most popular -- the Caucasus, Bulgaria etc. Yogurt is much easier to assimilate than milk.

4. Remnants of the proto- Caucasian and trans-Caucasian culture of wheel, cart, horse and lactose are amply evident among the Slavs. The Ukrainians had a distinct military tactic of using a backstop of horse and human-drawn carts not only as the supply train but also a quickly reconfigurable platform for light cannons, shield against incoming lances, arrows, mobile lodging etc. The Polish gentry believes it’s descended from Sarmatians, and until the 19th century wore costumes and carried swords that were prevalent 1000 years earlier among the Aryan –Irani tribes of the Caucasian plateau. The sword, saber really, carried also by the Hungarian gentry, looks like the Iranian- Central Asian shamshir of the 9th century. Milk and dairy products consumption is very high in those regions to this day. As to the horse, when Marcus Aurelius wanted some really good cavalry to curb mischief in Britannia, he recruited a corps of 5500 Sarmatians. If only he could so again...

Conservative Swede said...

I'll get to milk and butter in my next comment. Right now I just have to say:

I just heard Chris Matthews saying that he forgotten for a whole hour that Obama is black.

Well, that's nothing. I forgot for a whole day that Hillary Clinton is a woman.

Luka said...

An interesting post, I'd just take issue with the word 'trigger'. Obviously, lactose tolerance didn't trigger anything, it (probably) didn't make the protoindoeuropeans (PIEs) more aggressive or anything like that. What it did was allow them to more effectively take advantage of the source of calories that domesticated animals - horses and cattle - represent, by drinking milk and eating cheese, instead of killing their enemies. If anything, lactose tolerance then contributed to greater health and numbers among the semi-nomads who subsequently brought together several key factors, mostly by chance (probably):

horses (their invention), wheels and chariots (from Mesopotamia), iron (from north Mesopotamia, probably), composite bows, experience with killing animals (predators after their flocks and their own animals for meat), experience with herding flocks (which could then be applied to herding enemy infantry).

This basic argument is worked out in more detail in John Keegan's History of Warfare.

But nice article, nevertheless :)

Anonymous said...

Actually, wheeled vehicles were probably invented by Indoeuropeans.
"The earliest depiction of what may be a wheeled vehicle (here a wagon—four wheels, two axles), is on the Bronocice pot, a ca. 3500-3350 BC clay pot excavated in southern Poland."

The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World," by David W. Anthony.

mace said...

@Takuan Seiyo,

I'd agree with your comments re the combination of dairy products and horses,the Indo-Europeans would not have been totally dependent on plundering any farming communities they encountered.

There's also another explanation for the expansion of the Indo-Europeans, see-

"The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins" by Colin Renfrew.

Renfrew suggested that the original Indo-Europeans were farmers who migrated from Anatolia,however this hypothesis has generally been rejected on linguistic grounds(too early).

Luka said...

Baduin: point granted. It may well have been them that invented the wheel. Whoever invented it, it was the Indoeuropeans who conquered the world with it ... China, India, Egypt, Sumeria, Europe ... quite a lot of vicious work.