How Milk Arrived in Europe from the Armenian Highlands – the Milk Revolution

How Milk Arrived in Europe from the Armenian HighlandsArmenian Highlands are considered an important center of early technological and agricultural inventions. Thanks to its positioning at the crossroads between Europe, Middle East, and Asia, earliest human technologies and genetics spread to Europe during the Neolithic revolution, when humans abandoned hunting and gathering to start settling down.

The oldest center of stock farming can actually be traced to the Armenian Highlands. In the “Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact” paper (2008), Dr. Melinda A. Zeder asserts that the early distribution of agriculture, i.e. Neolithic revolution, took place through a combination of colonization and cultural diffusion in Europe and elsewhere.

Petroglyphs of the mountains of Ukhtasar in Armenia, depicting agricultural motives (12,000 – 7,000 BC)

The hunter-gatherers indigenous to Europe adopted new farming technologies through cultural diffusion. The consumption of milk came along with farming and cattle domestication. Study of the European “milk revolution” uncovered that agriculture first made it into Europe as a result of immigration from the Armenian Highlands during Neolithic.

The newcomers overcame the local societies thanks to their refined culture, mastery of agriculture, and the miracle of food and milk brought with them. By ca. 5,300 BC, everyone in Central Europe had already been farming and raising livestock. And within less than 300 years, sedentary lifestyle reached the Paris basin.

Prior to the recent excavations in Turkey, the reasons for such a rapid shift of lifestyle had long been unknown. Plus, genetic analyses of domestic animals and Stone Age skeletons demonstrate that a mass migration of farmers from the Armenian Upland to Europe began at around 7,000 BC.  These were the farmers who would bring domesticated cattle to Europe.

The Origin of Taming of Livestock, Melinda A. Zeder (2008)

In order to investigate the history of dairying in Europe, scholars from a number of European universities established the multidisciplinary project LeCHE (Lactase Persistence in the early Cultural History of Europe) bringing together dozens of early-career researchers.

Their study showed that during the latest ice age, milk was toxic for adults whose organisms, unlike children’s, could not produce the lactase enzyme necessary for the breakdown of lactose, the main sugar in milk. The earliest farmers thereby weren’t able to drink fresh milk.

Expansion of agriculture and dairy farming in the Neolithic period – www.spiegel.de

When farming started to replace the old hunting-gathering lifestyle in the Armenian Highlands about 11,000 years ago, herders found out how to reduce lactose in their dairy products to tolerable levels. They started to make cheese or yogurt.

Goat (stand for a vessel) Bronze H 14.85 cm. L 16 cm Ararat culture of Armenia beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C.

Several millennia later, a genetic mutation spread in Europe, giving humans the ability to produce lactase and drink milk regardless of their age.

This adaptation has presented ancient communities with new nutritional opportunities to survive when harvests failed.

Additionally, the ability provided the people living in Northern Europe with vitamin D and calcium, which were much more crucial due to the lack of sunlight.

So, the newcomers produced fresh milk, which would later become consumable thanks to the genetic mutations. Those early populations soon became able to drink milk in large quantities, resulting in an exponential growth of the population of farmers.

Over the course of a decade, these astounding insights were provided by articles in academic journals like Natura and BMC Evolutionary Biology published by a number of biologists and chemists.

There is also evidence of conflict. The foreigners genetically differed from the continent’s Ice Age inhabitants. The two groups simply didn’t intermix.

A cart with bulls. Copper. Ancient Armenia. Early bronze II-III, 2400-2000 BC.

But clearly, the farmers won out eventually. On their way to the far northern corners of Europe, they encountered lush pastures ideal for their cows. In the north, the cold climate allowed them to store milk longer. These led to increased population growth and further geographical expansion.

Scholars are certain that milk played a big role in the shaping of human history, just like gunpowder would much later. And the origins of the “white revolution” is traced back to the Armenian Highlands.

Bronze bull of the Ararat era, 8-8 cc.

Some of the LeCHE participants look even further back in time in the scopes of a project named BEAN (Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic), which is attempting to reveal how the first farmers and herders migrated to Europe.

The experts regularly visit Turkey to track the origins of the Neolithic farmers through computer models and ancient-DNA analyses, which, they hope, could help them better understand who those earliest farmers were and when they made their way into Europe.

Today, the ancient dairying tradition is reflected in traditional Armenian cuisine rich with dairy products, including various types of cheeses and yogurts. Some of the noteworthy Armenian dairy products are Matzoon, a fermented milk product of Armenian origin, and Tan, a piquant drink made with yogurt, cucumber, water, salt, and fresh herbs like parsley or mint.

Interestingly, yogurt was popularized in America by “Colombo and Sons Creamery” started by Armenian migrants Sarkis and Rose Colombosian in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1929. Originally, Colombo Yogurt was delivered around New England by horse-drawn wagons inscribed with the Armenian word “madzoon”.

The name was later replaced by “yogurt”, the Turkish name of the product because Turkish was the lingua franca of the immigrants of various Near Eastern ethnicities, main consumers at the time. In the 1950s and 60s, yogurt became increasingly popular in the United States, when it was presented as healthy food. Since the late 20th century, yogurt has been a common American food item.


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