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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

High frequency of lactose intolerance in a prehistoric hunter-gatherer population in northern Europe

Helena Malmström1, Anna Linderholm25*, Kerstin Lidén2, Jan Storå3, Petra Molnar3, Gunilla Holmlund4, Mattias Jakobsson1 and Anders Götherström1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Evolutionary Biology, Uppsala University, 752 36 Uppsala, Sweden

2 Archaeological Research Laboratory, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

3 Osteoarchaeological Research Laboratory, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

4 National Board of Forensic Medicine, Department of Forensic Genetics and Forensic Toxicology, 587 85 Linköping, Sweden

5 Current address: Department of Archaeology, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:89  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-89

Published: 30 March 2010

Abstract

Background

Genes and culture are believed to interact, but it has been difficult to find direct evidence for the process. One candidate example that has been put forward is lactase persistence in adulthood, i.e. the ability to continue digesting the milk sugar lactose after childhood, facilitating the consumption of raw milk. This genetic trait is believed to have evolved within a short time period and to be related with the emergence of sedentary agriculture.

Results

Here we investigate the frequency of an allele (-13910*T) associated with lactase persistence in a Neolithic Scandinavian population. From the 14 individuals originally examined, 10 yielded reliable results. We find that the T allele frequency was very low (5%) in this Middle Neolithic hunter-gatherer population, and that the frequency is dramatically different from the extant Swedish population (74%).

Conclusions

We conclude that this difference in frequency could not have arisen by genetic drift and is either due to selection or, more likely, replacement of hunter-gatherer populations by sedentary agriculturalists.