University College London scientists said the genetic change that enabled early Europeans to drink milk without becoming sick has been mapped to dairying farmers who lived in a region between the central Balkans and central Europe.
In the new study, the researchers said they used a computer simulation model that integrated genetic and archaeological data using newly developed statistical approaches.
Traces of fats point to dairying at the onset of farming in England some 6,100 years ago, said Professor Mark Thomas, who led the study. But he said it's most likely milk was first fermented to make yogurt, butter and cheese, and not drunk fresh.
"Our study simulated the spread of lactase persistence and farming in Europe, and found that lactase persistence appears to have begun around 7,500 years ago … probably among people of the Linearbandkeramik culture," said Thomas.
Thomas said the spread of fresh milk drinking from the Balkans across Europe explains why most European lactase-persistent people carry the same version of the gene that causes it.
The study appears in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.