Why Humans Drink (Raw) Milk

By Mark McAfee and Sarah Smith

Until about 10,000 years ago, human beings spent much of their time hunting, gathering, or fishing. Obtaining food was the dominant preoccupation of their lives. As human populations increased and naturally occurring food sources dwindled, people began to domesticate plants and animals to ensure a steady supply of food.1 Those populations that were successful in learning how to produce food reliably thrived, leading to the advent of civilization as we know it.

Early humans nursed their young, just as all mammals do. Nursing provided optimal nutrition for babies to survive and thrive. Breastmilk is a form of raw milk, serving as a complete food source that is perfectly designed to sustain life.

As humans began to see the tremendous advantages of domesticating plants and animals, it was a natural step for them to realize that the milk from their animals could also be a food source. Scientists have ample evidence that humans began drinking raw milk from animals at least 10,000 years ago. Furthermore, there is much evidence that obtaining milk from animals may have been one of the primary reasons for the domestication of animals in the first place.2

In the Fertile Crescent region of western Asia, humans managed and milked goats, cattle and sheep around 10,000 years ago. The evidence for the early use of animal milk is found in ancient clay pottery vessels, dental remains of Neolithic humans, and bone analysis of animal remains in these areas.2-4 These agriculture-based civilizations were so successful that they spread across the Mediterranean region, Europe, Asia and the Middle East over the next few thousand years.5 Humanity continued to domesticate additional species of animals; throughout history, many species have been utilized for their milk, including camels, cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, water buffalo, reindeer, and other mammals.

Map showing the Fertile Crescent with indicators of the original and spread of sheep and goats 11,000 years ago, cattle 10,000 years ago, and pigs 10,500 years ago, and then their dispersal from their points of origin throughout the region up to 8,500 years ago.
The origin and dispersal of domestic livestock species in the Fertile Crescent.5

Why Milk from Other Mammals?

Imagine the reality for humans living prior to the advent of civilization. You can picture them living in crude shelters, wearing animal skins and using a few tools. It was not like a 14-day survival challenge where they could call for a medic and be rescued. Eating and surviving were lifelong challenges.

You can hear the crying of babies and children who were hungry. Those cries are universal and have not changed over the millennia. The natural instinct to provide for the next generation was a compelling mandate that drove instinctual and natural innovation. People observed animals in the wild nursing their young just as they nursed their own young. By capturing goats and aurochs (ancestral cow breeds), people were able to collect their milk in pottery vessels.

These humans would have learned quickly that milk from other animals was a complete, nutritious food. Even though humans had not yet developed something called the lactase-persistence gene, they likely could have readily digested milk from other animals since raw milk facilitates the production of lactase enzyme in the intestinal tract.7 Being purposely designed to sustain life like no other food, this raw milk provided a steady source of readily available nutrition for ancient humans.

Without refrigeration, any milk that wasn’t consumed quickly would naturally ferment into cheese curd and whey. The milk storage vessels likely contained bacteria cultures from previous milkings, and hence the culturing process was naturally reinforced with these bacteria. The resultant curds could be stored and consumed over time. Curd contained a complete set of microbiome-friendly nutrients and would have been easy to digest due to its biodiversity. The humans could now bring along with them a portable supply of steady food. As long as they had sunshine, water, grass or shrubbery, and a mammal, they had food.

Those who consumed milk had a competitive advantage over those who did not have a steady source of readily available food. This steady supply of food allowed for settlements and communities to develop. People no longer had to spend most of their time acquiring food and could instead use their brain power to drive the development of sophisticated structures and towns. Domesticated animals became high-value assets. As civilization advanced, those who owned milking mammals became wealthy and became the source of food for communities.

Stone carving at the ancient Sumerian temple of Ninhursag showing typical dairy activities.
Stone carving at the ancient Sumerian temple of Ninhursag showing typical dairy activities.6

Milk Throughout the Ages

It is likely that milk was consumed in both fresh and fermented forms from the early days when humans first began milking animals. Ancient baby bottles provide evidence that milk from animals was used to feed human infants at least 8,000 years ago.8 Around the same time, clay vessels for straining curds and whey were also in use.9

Dairying practices spread along with civilization throughout large areas of Asia and Europe. Milk was a revered food in many civilizations. People used milk in religious ceremonies in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Ireland, Scotland, Greece and Rome.10 Primary religious source texts reveal that milk was an esteemed part of life. The Buddha was fed milk and rice to break his ascetic fast, and the Biblical “land of milk and honey” was the promise of a better life. Milk was central to the Vedic religion. Hindus consider milk a gift from the gods, and rivers of milk also flow in the Muslim paradise.

By the time of the Roman Empire, humans had been drinking milk from animals for thousands of years. The Romans drank milk and used it to make a variety of cheeses. Cheese provided Roman soldiers with easily transportable nourishment with a long shelf life. The wealthy even used milk for bathing, as it was considered to be great for the skin.

In the 1600s, early settlers in America relied heavily on milk from cows and goats for nutrition. Settlers in both the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies benefited from the tremendous advantages of milking animals. Resupply missions brought hundreds of additional livestock to these colonies. Milking animals were important in helping European colonists survive and thrive in America.

Specialized vessels for separating curds and whey.
Specialized vessels for separating curds and whey.9

Lactase and Genetic Adaptations for Milk

The domestication of mammals and consumption of their raw milk provided a source of biodiverse colonies of bacteria for the human gut. When people began drinking raw milk at least 10,000 years ago, these biodiverse bacteria began the genomic adaptation for lactase production and lactase-persistence genes. Lactase is the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose into digestible form.

Archaeological evidence shows that humans were consuming raw milk for thousands of years before the widespread appearance of the lactase-persistence gene.7 This has led many researchers to the probably erroneous conclusion that Neolithic humans must have been fermenting or culturing milk to reduce or remove its lactose content. This error is due to a loss of fundamental knowledge about raw milk.

In reality, “lactose intolerance” is primarily pasteurization intolerance. Unlike pasteurized milk, raw milk facilitates the production of lactase in the human gut, so it is not likely that there were widespread issues with lactose intolerance in Neolithic populations. In all likelihood, these early populations would have been able to consume milk in its fresh form straight from the mammals, as well as in the lactofermented curds and whey, which would form quickly without refrigeration.

The competitive advantage provided by raw milk is not to be understated. Raw milk allowed humans to thrive in conditions where survival would have otherwise been difficult. It allowed them to migrate and proliferate from region to region with a steady supply of food. Those populations that consumed milk further adapted by developing lactase-persistence genes. Scientists now believe that the lactase-persistence genes were spread through natural selection.12 This means that the reproductive capacity and survivability of ancient raw milk drinkers was substantially increased compared to non-milk-drinking populations. Moreover, the lactase-persistence genes would have facilitated the easy digestion of milk in many forms, including boiled or cooked milk. There is current evidence of lactase-persistence genes in people from regions of Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.13 However even those without the lactase-persistence gene can generally digest raw milk because of the raw milk bacteria that create lactase for the human gut.

Selection of late Bronze/early Iron Age feeding vessels.
Selection of late Bronze/early Iron Age feeding vessels.8

Pasteurization: A Technological Solution to a Manmade Problem

By the mid-1800s in America, some raw milk production had shifted away from farms and into highly populated cities. Big cities did not have pastures or clean water, and the cows in city dairies were kept in filthy conditions with poor nutrition and poor animal health. Many of these cows were fed byproducts from alcohol distilleries, leading to illness in the cows.14 Raw milk, which had been safely consumed by humans for nearly 10,000 years, became associated with the diseases of filth and poverty, such as tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria, and scarlet fever.

In the late 1800s, raw milk was accused of causing these diseases, and two solutions were proposed. Pasteurization was one of the solutions on the theory that heat treatment would eliminate pathogenic bacteria in the milk coming from these filthy conditions. The other solution was to produce the milk in hygienic conditions with healthy animals.

Many physicians realized that raw milk was a superior source of nutrition for infants and children, so the American Association of Medical Milk Commissions (AAMMC) was established in the late 1800s to ensure a safe supply of hygienic raw milk.14 The AAMMC was in operation for nearly a century, certifying medical raw milk for use in hospitals and for feeding infants and children.

Pasteurization was ushered in to address filthy and poisonous conditions and unhealthy cows in cities. It answered the question of how to commercialize dirty milk, rather than focusing time and energy on producing clean milk from healthy cows. Over time, the pasteurization movement gained traction and became the standard for ensuring “safe” milk, even though pasteurization is known to degrade and damage many of the nutrients in milk.

Goddess Hathor Suckling Amenhotep II. Egypt Museum website. https://egypt-museum.com/post/181897574541/hathor-suckling-amenhotep-ii#gsc.tab=0
Goddess Hathor Suckling Amenhotep II.11

Raw Milk and Immunity

Unlike pasteurized milk, raw milk consumption provided immune system advantages to people. Cows and other mammals that lived in close quarters with humans mutually shared much of the same biome. The immune systems of both animals and humans develop antibodies to adjust to their environments. As with the case in human breastmilk and especially colostrum, the milk and colostrum from cows and other milking animals contain antibodies. Such antibodies are damaged or destroyed by pasteurization.

There is evidence that in some instances contact with domesticated animals actually provided immunological protection to humans. For instance, in the 1700s some people believed that milkmaids who had been in contact with cowpox (a relatively mild illness) were protected from smallpox. The fact that milkmaids had beautiful skin was offered as proof that they had not suffered from smallpox, but a better explanation is that the milkmaids had a daily source of superb nutrition and healthy bacteria, which conferred natural immunity and good health—including smooth, healthy skin.

Raw Milk’s Role in 2020

It is important to recognize that the human gut loves milk. We are mammals. Our human gut is lacto-loving. For 10,000 years, raw milk has provided a source of nourishment, gut health, and immune-boosting to mankind. When 125 years of commercial milk pasteurization are compared to the long history of highly successful raw milk consumption, they do not even register as a blip. Pasteurized milk makes up only one percent of the 10,000 years of documented human milk consumption.

The advent of pasteurization ushered in a negative shift in mankind’s relationship with milk as a life-giving food. Raw milk—an innate part of our healthy immune history—is now largely missing in our sterile, sugar-laden, preservative-laced, antibiotic-abusing modern diets, and medical culture. Now we are in a time of widespread industrial food, poor nutrition, immune depression, comorbidities, and compromised health. For most modern Americans, the competitive advantage of raw milk consumption has never been a reality, and raw milk’s immune-building properties and microbiome-friendly traits have been largely forgotten. Instead, we live in the age of biome-destructive pharmaceuticals and antibiotics. Although life-saving in certain applications, these drugs also depress and damage the immune system and gut microbiome. Antibiotic resistance is now responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S. alone.15 Furthermore, pasteurized milk is now recognized as difficult to digest and a top food allergen.

Fortunately safe raw milk has been rediscovered by those who study history and know the role of raw milk as a nourishing whole food that contributes to a strong, healthy immune system and healthy gut microbiome. That competitive advantage from thousands of years ago is being rekindled in people who consume raw milk, fermented raw milk such as kefir and yogurt, and raw milk cheeses.

Raw milk that is carefully and intentionally produced for direct human consumption is wholly different from milk being produced for pasteurization. Organizations such as the Raw Milk Institute and the British Columbia Herdshare Association mentor farmers in the production of low-risk raw milk, relying on many of the natural methods that humans successfully used for thousands of years while also implementing modern technologies. Raw milk farmers carefully manage the cleanliness and hygiene of the farm from grass to the glass, with much care to ensure that the animals are healthy and the milk is clean. This type of raw milk is tested often and held to rigorous standards to ensure that it is being produced in a way that discourages pathogen growth.

So the next time that someone says, “milk is for cows and not for humans,” share with them the intricate link between civilization and raw milk, and the competitive advantage that raw milk provided to humanity for 10,000 years. Many of these misinformed humans are in dire need of gut microbiome rescue like never before. Reach out to them with love, compassion and humanity. They need our support, nourishment and education.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

About the Authors

Mark McAfee is co-founder of Organic Pastures, the world’s largest organic raw milk dairy. Mark founded the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI) in 2011 to assist farmers in producing very low risk raw milk through farmer training, raw milk Risk Analysis & Management Plans (“RAMP”), test standards for raw milk and ongoing testing.

Sarah Smith is a director and board secretary for the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI). Sarah is also a homeopathic practitioner, homesteader, food and health writer (NourishedandNurturedLife.com) and homeschooling mother of two.

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