October 17, 2010

What Middle Eastern migration gave us?

One of the odder things about human beings is that we drink milk. Most mammals drink milk when they are babies and as they grow to adulthood they become intolerant of the stuff. That's true even now for some humans. Throughout Europe and the Americas, the Middle East and Northern Africa human beings regularly drink milk- some do it every day as a standard part of breakfast for example. We do this because of a very small alteration to a chromosones which allows us to ingest milk without suffering the consequences. As far as we know, that small alteration means that at least 95% of human beings in Northern Europe can consume milk as normally as anything else. This varies across the world with some African and Asian countries containing populations which are 90% lactose intolerant (source Wikipedia). Why and when did this revolution happen?

The development of milk as a foodstuff is related to the development of agriculture. The key development was the recognition the domestication of animals: if you have cows and bulls for rearing for beef and leather, you can also produce milk from them at the same time. You could not have milk therefore without agriculture. Most historians think that this happened in the last 10,000 years- in Europe it happened at sometime around 7500 years ago. In Der Speigel a fascinating series of discoveries is noted about what happened at that date. The archaeologists argue that a group of people came across from roughly the area of the Zagros mountains (now in Turkey and Iran) and migrated up towards the bospherous and then in stages across into Europe and Northern Europe. The migrating groups brought with them agriculture and in particular cattle- there is evidence of them eating cheese and yoghurt at this point. When they came to Northern Europe though they were able to consume much more dairy produce: the temperature meant that it survived for longer. They also forced out previous hunter gatherer societies and seem to have exterminated them.

I don't know about the credibility of this. Archaeological evidence can often be very difficult to assess, particularly when you do not know the field. It does however throw into relief two ideas which I think are true:

1. That the agricultural revolution was incredibly significant- these scholars contend the development of milk led to child mortality falling (though the article doesn't mention that it probably also led to a falling variety in diet).

2. That the pattern of living in prehistoric times as well as today included vast migration: the idea that migration is only a fact of modern life is a bit like the argument that the earth is flat, its as false. Ultimately we are all mongrels.

It also brings out- hence the title of this post- a third point. The early history of Europe is a history that develops in connection with the histories of the areas around it: with the Eurasian steppe (just think of the waves of Barbarians invading Eastward in the Roman era and realise that they could not have been the first and were not the last), with the Middle Eastern landmasses to the south East and with Africa to the south. Europe has been contested and has contested its relations with these areas ever since and much of what we call European or Middle Eastern or North African is actually an import from one of the other places. An import of course that could stem ultimately from somewhere in India or China, in Nigeria or Zimbabwe. The case of agriculture may be an example- whenever you look at your bottle of milk, remember according to some scholars that's a sign of the Middle Eastern ancestory of European civilisation.