It was during the time of the Nordic Stone Age that a prevalence of a gene that allowed adults of Northern European descent to digest lactose originated.
This gene then spread to other cultures to become virtually universal. This was a genetic variant that was either rare or completely absent in early farmers from Central and Southern Europe.
Lactase is an enzyme produced in the digestive system of infants and some (mostly European) adult humans to break down lactose. The lactase enzyme is essential in the digestion of whole milk. The absence of the lactase enzyme is what causes a person consuming dairy products to experience the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Ancient DNA extracted from three individuals belonging to the Funnelbeaker Culture (4300 BC – 2800 BC) in Gökhem, Sweden were found to possess these traits.
The reasons for this gene mutation may very well be because of times of famine.
Northern Europe has a shorter growing season than that of Central and Southern Europe. Northern Europe crops were more likely to fail and cause famine. This would lead up to moments of desperation in which one would be willing to try to digest
Additionally, the colder Northern European climate often provided natural refrigeration which kept the milk fresh. For example: If a farmer in Southern Europe milks a cow in the morning and leaves the milk out, it will be yogurt by noon (an easier to digest product). However, if a Northern European farmer milks a cow in the morning and leaves the milk out, because of the natural refrigeration from the climate, it’ll still be milk.
It would be during times of famine that a starving person would be wiling to try to digest this whole milk.
Now, here’s the problem with that: A healthy lactose-intolerant person who drank that still-fresh milk would get a bad case of diarrhea. If they were malnourished, already weakened, or ill, – they would die. A primary reason cow milk wasn’t consumed.
Over a period of time from consuming this whole milk in times of desperation, a tolerance was built up. This tolerance for lactose was then spread to other cultures and people.
This genetic trait made cattle an even more important resource to the Norse than just that of meat and hide. The milk could now be regularly harvested for consumption, which later evolved into cheese, butter and other dairy products which became a very important part of Norse culture.
The idea of consuming whole milk directly from a cow is an ancient concept to the Norse.
The Norse Creation Story tells of the great giant Ymir suckling from the udder of the great cow Auðumbla. This was before the creation of mankind, according to the Poetic Edda.
Having made best of everything the cow had to offer, the Norse evolved from this culture into the Battleaxe Culture, also known as the Boat-Ax Culture or more accurately the Corded Ware Culture of approximately 2800 BC. This was the period in history that would begin the Nordic culture of the Ax. A warrior culture that continued well into the Viking Age of Exploration.
The Beginning of the Norse and their very distinct and innovative culture did not start during the Viking Age. The Viking way began much much earlier, when the Ax was made from stone.
- Kane, Njord. “Chapter 2 – The Nordic Stone Age.” The Vikings: The Story of a People. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print.
- Archaeology: The milk revolution
- An Evolutionary Whodunit: How Did Humans Develop Lactose Tolerance?
Read About the Norse – from the Stone Age to the Viking Age.
The Vikings: The Story of a People by Njord Kane
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