DAIRYCULTURES: "Cultures of dairying: gene-culture-microbiome evolution and the ancient invention of dairy foods"
The ERC-funded project DairyCultures will investigate the unique biological and cultural relationships between humans, livestock, and microbes, using Mongolia, a country where a substantial proportion of the rural diet consists of dairy products and where dairying has been practiced for more than 3,500 years, as a model.
Despite its global economic importance, basic questions about the origins and role of dairying in early human societies are still unanswered. The inability to digest milk sugar, or lactose, in adults is an ancestral human trait and only a few human populations have genetic variants that allow continued milk digestion into adulthood, a trait known as lactase persistence.
However, lactase persistence does not consistently appear in the archaeological record until more than 5,000 years after the origins of dairying and some dairying populations do not have it at all. This has left archaeologists with a puzzling problem, a “milk paradox,” regarding how and why ancient peoples developed milk into a dietary resource and what other factors besides lactase persistence may have been involved in this process.
There is now a growing body of evidence that microbes have played important roles in prehistoric dairying. The DairyCultures project, led by Christina Warinner, will use cutting-edge techniques to test, among other things, hypotheses regarding the relationship between the gut microbiome and lactose digestion in Mongolian dairy herders, as well as how dairying arose in Mongolian prehistory.