Whose Idea Was It to Drink Cow Milk?

I’m having trouble picturing this scenario. Some ancient farmer is standing in his field, thinking, “Wow, that’s one fine-looking bovine over there. Why don’t we drink its bodily fluids?” So, how and when did humans start drinking cow milk? It hasn’t always been available in sterile grocery store cartons, so somewhere along the line, someone tried drinking it from the source for the first time.

We take a lot of things for granted, but once in a while, if you step back and consider what we do from a fresh perspective, you have to wonder… You know, like leaving perfectly good cheese to sit out until it gets really moldy and nasty, then jacking the price and calling it Roquefort. Drinking cow milk is one of those things that seems perfectly normal now, but you have to admit, the first person to try it was either desperate or a true culinary thrill seeker.

A Very Old Thirsty Farmer

Molesting cows for their half-and-half has been going on for a very long time. Contrary to some beliefs, there’s evidence of the practice not just in Europe but other regions, including Africa, Asia and the Middle East—and early signs exist simultaneously in all those places. So, drinking cow milk didn’t necessarily start in Europe. It just as likely originated in Africa, where folks have herded cows, sheep and goats for at least 8,000 years, give or take.

By examining pottery shards and… teeth from ancient skeletons, scientists have found traces of animal dairy storage in hut-hold kitchen containers, suggesting common consumption. The real proof lies in traces of animal dairy proteins in teeth gunk scraped from six to nine-thousand-year-old skeletons. Yup, they drank cow milk, goat milk and sheep milk.

Cow Milk: Aren’t We Lactose Intolerant?

“Were” might be the better way to classify our lactose intolerance tendencies. Six thousand years ago, almost all humans were lactose intolerant. Today, somewhere around 95 percent of all people carry the gene permitting the production of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the lactose milk sugar.

You read the preceding dates correctly. The evidence suggests people started drinking milk while they were largely lactose intolerant. I guess when there were no grocery stores on every corner, and basic avoidance of starvation was not a given, people didn’t worry too much about bellyaches and embarrassing gas expulsions at social events. The current thinking is that, yes, people did start to drink milk before it was easy, and over a few thousand years, they developed the biological means to deal with its digestion.

So, what happened?

A Walking Nutrition and Hydration Supply

Imagine yourself living in the wild, trying desperately to scrape together enough food and pure water to keep your family and community alive. Then, one day, some super-smart guy figures out that the cows, sheep, or goats are literally walking supplies of purified water with lots of nutrition to boot. As long as one kept the animals alive and healthy, you had a daily fresh supply of part of the food and drink you required. Sure, ancient beer filled some of those needs too, but beer tastes awful on Count Chocula.

As for the inconvenience of suffering poor digestion from lactose intolerance, that’s far preferable to dying, right? So now, imagine tough times of famine, drought and disease. If you’re weak, sick and lactose intolerant to boot, those “minor” symptoms suddenly become a much bigger deal, and not being able to drink a readily available source of nutrition puts you at a severe disadvantage. People who had the genetic code to thrive on an animal milk diet were more likely to prosper and grow. Next thing you know (a few thousand years), most of us can now drink animal milk comfortably.

The next time you see a cow, offer up a hat tip to that nine-thousand-year-old guy who dared to sample the bovine wares.

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