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Middle East Milk Drinkers

15 October 2010

At www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,druck-723310,0.html a German journalist reports on mainly German research that is now claiming that agriculturalists came to Europe during a wave of migration with origins in the Fertile Crescent (the Middle East, Iran, and Anatolia) that basically swept aside the indigenous Mesolithic peoples. However, in all such blanket assertions, there are some noteable problems – completely ignored by the journalist. As agriculturalists the newcomers were able to seize control simply by breeding in larger numbers, or by being organised more effectively. They also had access to milk, and dairy products, which allowed them to expand in a cold environment. In fact, the basis of the claim in this article is almost wholly based on their ability to drink milk. This, it is said, is first found among the Linear Pottery Culture people – and they also had pottery, the spinning wheel, cheese, bread baking skills, and a variety of livestock that provided clothing and food. It is assumed the Mesolithic people were primitive hunter gatherers living in flimsy huts of no consequence – which ignores some recent archaeology. By 5300BC agriculturalists dominated central Europe and they spread out as far as the Paris Basin. New excavations in Anatolia and genetic analysis of domestic animals, and the study of Neolithic skeletal material, seem to suggest that around 7000BC there was a mass migration of farmers from SW Asia and Anatolia into Europe – and they brought cattle and pigs with them. It then goes on to say there seems to have been very little interbreeding with the Mesolithic hunting peoples – with the emphasis on the fact that these farmers were lactose tolerant. Biologists and chemists in papers published in Nature and Evolutionary Biology have overturned some of the prevailing views of hybridisation between newcomers and indigenous peoples. Some of this research has involved the genetic beginnings of butter, milk and cheese. As humans are generally lactose intolerant the ability to consume dairy products became a vital survival tool – it is thought. Namely, it is emphasised that it enabled people to live in cool northern climates. One problem with this position is that the Linear Pottery Culture people expanded during the climatic optimum of the Mid Holocene Warm Period when large tracts of Europe were benign as far as temperatures were concerned. In addition, they say the research found lactose tolerance was highest in the far NW parts of Europe, namely the British Isles and Scandinavia. Why should that be so?

Lactose tolerance, it was found, is abnormally high in Europe as a whole. Analysis of skeletons has found that milk drinkers first appeared in the Austria-Hungary-Slovakia region, the main area of the Linear Pottery Culture. They were clearly newcomers with antecedents in the Balkans – and ultimately in Anatolia and further east. However, early farmers in the Fertile Crescent do not appear to have been milk drinkers although they would have consumed fermented milk products such as yoghurts, cheese, and kefir. However, and here is the really interesting bit. The farmers were confined to the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia until 7000-6500BC – when they moved into the Balkans. Now, taking those dates at face value this is just before the big event of 6200BC, that witnessed global changes from sea levels abruptly rising, or falling, and the onset of a mini-Dryas event lasting between 200 and 400 years. It is during such a cold period that humans may have been forced to drink milk and their resistance to feeling sick kicked in – over the course of several generations. We also have a motive for such a large scale migration event – caused by whatever catastrophic event might have occurred to kick-start the sudden climatic downturn. At the same point in time the Bosporus was breached, the North Sea drowned a large part of the continental shelf system between Britain and the continent, and likewise in SE Asia large areas of continental shelf disappeared beneath the sea and created the island system that is now Indonesia and the Philippines and separated Australia from New Guinea etc. Hence, we might expect a lot of folk movement at that point in time – in diverse parts of the globe. It is in that context that the Linear Pottery Culture people turn up in central Europe. It is assumed they migrated out of the Balkans and Anatolia, possibly as a result of tectonic activity across plate boundaries, a zone that includes the whole gamut of the Fertile Crescent as far as Baluchistan.

In subsequent history, these agricultural communities were set in motion on a couple of other occasions – also at significant points in time that coincide, accidentally or otherwise, with low growth tree ring events – including evidence of landscape fires. The latter is usually attributed to slash and burn methodology, the soil losing its nutrients (from wood ash) and not being replenished, leading to colonisation of new areas. That may be so – but not always. Mass movement of people, rather than expansion due to population growth, may have an underlying association with landscape fires (among other things), which appears to be recognisable in the archaeological record. Fire is a distinct feature of Neolithic ritual.

The article is interesting but the journalist has clearly spun a nice yarn without picking at the research in an investigative manner.

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