UCL News


Early Europeans unable to stomach milk

28 February 2007

Dr Mark Thomas (UCL Biology) has found the first direct evidence that early Europeans were unable to digest milk, in cooperation with colleagues at UCL and Mainz University.

Dr Mark Thomas

In a study published this week in the journal 'PNAS', the team shows that the gene that controls the ability to digest milk was missing from Neolithic skeletons dating to between 5840 and 5000 BC. However, through exposure to milk, lactose tolerance evolved extremely rapidly, in evolutionary terms. Today, it is present in over ninety per cent of the population of northern Europe and is also found in some African and Middle Eastern populations but is missing from the majority of the adult population globally.

Dr Thomas said: "The ability to drink milk is the most advantageous trait that's evolved in Europeans in the recent past. Without the enzyme lactase, drinking milk in adulthood causes bloating and diarrhoea. Although the benefits of milk tolerance are not fully understood yet, the ability to drink milk gave some early Europeans a big survival advantage."

To read the press release in full, click here.

Image: Dr Mark Thomas