High Lactose Tolerance in North Europeans: A Result of Migration, Not In Situ Milk Consumption


The main carbohydrate in milk is lactose, which must be hydrolyzed to glucose and galactose before the sugars can be digested. While 65% or more of the total human population are lactose intolerant, in some human populations lactase activity commonly persists into adulthood. Lactose tolerance is exceptionally widespread in Northern European countries such as Sweden and Finland, with tolerance levels of 74% and 82%, respectively. Theoretically, this may result either from a strong local selection pressure for lactose tolerance, or from immigration of lactose tolerant people to Northern Europe. We provide several lines of archaeological and historical evidence suggesting that the high lactose tolerance in North Europeans cannot be explained by selection from in situ milk consumption. First, fresh cow milk has not belonged to the traditional diet of Swedes or Finns until recent times. Second, not enough milk has been available for adult consumption. Cattle herding has been neither widespread nor productive enough in Northern Europe to have provided constant access to fresh milk. We suggest that the high prevalence of lactose tolerance in Finland in particular may be explained by immigration of people representing so-called Corded Ware Culture, an early culture representing agricultural development in Europe.