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date: 17 February 2020

Abstract and Keywords

Among the biocultural innovations associated with the Neolithic, dairying and the evolution of lactose tolerance is the most studied. Expression of the enzyme lactase, which digests the milk sugar lactose, decreases after weaning in mammals, including most humans. However, some humans express lactase throughout adulthood—a trait known as lactase persistence (LP). Striking observations about LP evolution include: (i) a strong correlation between LP frequency and a history of herding and dairying; (ii) genetic patterns indicating LP-associated variants have increased in frequency through natural selection; (iii) two of these variants have been experimentally shown to affect lactase expression in adults; and (iv) archaeological and ancient DNA data indicate dairying pre-dated the rise of LP-associated variants. This chapter reviews the biology and archaeology of LP, examines some of the hypotheses formulated to explain its distribution, and outlines how simulation modelling has contributed to our understanding of its evolution.

Keywords: lactase persistence, genetic adaptation, dietary transition, Neolithic, milk

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