Our ancient ancestors couldn't digest milk

By Dave Armstrong - 23 Oct 2014 7:48:0 GMT
 Our ancient ancestors couldn't digest milk

Iron Age forts are often the oldest visible evidence of farming communities in Europe. Then the Romans came and knocked them out! Maybe next we’ll see how the multifarious races of Roman soldiers spread around the whole Empire and changed our modern genomes. Then again, the older populations seem here to have benefited from real genetic advantages, associated with milk digestion and pigmentation in the northern climate. This beauty is from Kerry, in Ireland. Iron Age forts image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The ancients are always a puzzle, whether colonising Europe or even when they left Africa and bred with Neanderthals. See the latest DNA evidence from a Siberian femur for that one! The genetic reason for this European success is now becoming more evident. The colonists developed advantageous genes, combined with several other factors based on their technologies.

The Hungarian Plain has always been at the centre of European invasions. The study concerned here used samples of DNA from skulls dated 5,700 to 800BC.The late Neolithic led there into the “Copper Age” Baden Culture, the early Bronze Age and the early Iron Age as the Near East, the steppes and Central Europe all swapped technologies. The Hallstatt Culture began there, in Transdanubia, with the fabled Scythians further east on the fertile plain.

Did the invasions bring new people, or just a few with the requisite technology? Agriculture provides the answer here, if we twist around the evidence to include knowledge of the genomes. Evidence of Mesolithic hunter gatherers, like them is scattered here and there, apart from northern Hungary and also to the north. We want to know if these early settlers intermarried with the farmers appearing from the south and the east.

Genome results show that Neolithic people has southern Mediterranean, mainly Sardinian affinities, as has been found before. Local male hunter gatherers became incorporated into farming communities, but in the 3rd millennium BC, the Bronze Age must have been revolutionary. Trade increased and heavily fortified settlements grew in Carpathia and its mountain passes. Only one Iron Age sample was taken from the Mezőcsát Culture (possibly pre-Scythian in 830-980 BC.) Asian influence is obvious here, probably from the steppes. Technology then involved horse domestication, carts, chariots and the obvious metallurgies. Today’s Hungarians have more western genome affinities, presumable due to mixing of European populations since then.

The real excitement of this mixture of history and genetics lies in these rare (and expensive) sources of endogenous DNA in certain skulls. Unfortunately, with the increasing prevalence of dairy products and milk from various animals, lactose intolerance remained. The lactose persistence allele is found only after the Neolithic/Copper Age and the late Bronze Age samples are the first found, around 1,000 BC. Oetzi the Ice Man, who we have written about before in Oetzi, was lactose intolerant, and was alive during the Tyrolean Copper age. Other genes were found relevant to population changes. The transition to the lighter pigmentation of modern Europeans is indicated but periods of genetic stability show up the changes that occurred at the advent of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron technologies.

Cristina Gamba and Ron Pinhasi of University College Dublin and numerous colleagues from Trinity College, the Universities of Potsdam, Cardiff, and Oxford and several Hungarian museums produced these spectacular results in - Genome flux and stasis in a five millennium transect of European prehistory.