Lactose Intolerance

philjennings at philjennings at
Thu Mar 22 03:33:05 UTC 2001

I am a fiction writer.  People wonder where I get my plots, and volunteer plot
devices of their own, as if this were the trickiest part of writing, not the
easiest.  Likewise, I suspect that for linguists and archeologists, making
hypotheses is the easiest part of their work.  They don't need amateurs coming
up with speculations we don't know how to develop.

Nevertheless, I hope you'll bear with me.  The focus of my concern is the
Khirbet Kerak incursion from NE Asia Minor into Canaan, in the middle 3rd
millennium bce.  At this time, the fertile crescent and its environs were
technically and socially more developed than surrounding areas.  Any incursion
by a less-organized culture against the natives of the fertile crescent might
be expected to fail.  In terms of known lasting effects, the Khirbet Kerak
event was a failure.

However, other people, ie. speakers of Anatolian languages, are thought to have
dislodged the Khirbet Kerak people from their NE Asia Minor homeland, and it
remains to be explained how they succeeded in putting these indigenes to
flight.  What advantages did the Anatolians have?

Moreover, immediately after the Khirbet Kerak wave of destruction, Canaan and
the fertile crescent flowered as never before, resulting in the development of
Ebla as a great power.  Why just then?

My speculation is; that the successful Anatolian invaders made better use of
the land's resources than the indigenes, because they had learned to culture
and ferment milk into a variety of products which could be digested even by
lactose-intolerant adults. (Almost all adults were lactose-intolerant in those

In favor of this idea; the pre-Anatolian and non-Anatolian peoples of the
Levant kept cattle of impressive size, and were proud of their mastery over
such dangerous creatures, as demonstrated by their art and religious
paraphernalia.  Large cattle are beef cattle.  Less-impressive, smaller, and
tractible dairy cattle would not inspire such cults, but in the long run
produce more food per acre of grazing land.  We see a decline in "the religion
of the cow/bull" over the course of time, that might have begun with the
Anatolian invasion of Asia Minor.

If this speculation about dairy products is true, we would find no words or
symbols for "cheese," "yoghurt," or other such products in the texts we have
from before Khirbet Kerak, in any of the non-IE languages of the fertile
crescent (Sumerian only?).  Equally, if these products are an Indo-Anatolian
innovation, we might expect a diaspora of related terms for cheese, yoghurt,
etc. in a number of daughter languages.

The technology of cheese, etc., spreading quickly into the fertile crescent,
would be accompanied by terminology adopted from the Anatolian.  This would
lead to an agricultural revolution and sudden prosperity, as with Ebla.

Another linguistic possibility is two sets of words for cattle; one appropriate
to the smaller dairy breed and the other borrowed to describe the larger
animals.  Here I take it from the Anatolian point-of-view, the exchange may
have worked in reverse in the languages of Ebla, Akkad and Sumer.

A companion to this hypothesis is that the Anatolians brought with them not
just fermented milk products, but the whole idea of fermentation/leavening,
almost immediately applied to beer and later to bread.  Is there evidence for
beer in Sumer or Egypt prior to the mid-3rd millennium bce?  (Linguistic or
otherwise?)  I'm given to understand that there is, and that this companion
hypothesis fails.

My more limited "fermented milk" hypothesis has a sequel; that the later
development of horse-and-cow nomadism by the precursors of the Indo-Aryans
north of the Black Sea will have resulted in a population of completely
lactose-tolerant people, able to expand at the expense of less
protein-nourished lactose-intolerant agriculturalists to the east, west and
south.  (Eventually, as nomadism spread among Altaics, Nilotics, desert Semites
and other peoples, so did lactose-tolerance.)

I am not sure, however, that this sequel had any linguistic impact.
Linguistically, "milk" the glandular secretion that nurtures new-borns, and
"milk" the protein-rich adult drink, may never have been distinguished by
separate terms.  Archeologically, the existence of milk-buckets, churns, and so
forth, does not signify the ability to digest raw milk.

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