Reasons for English: Lactose tolerant

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast on the history of English focussin on how being lactose tolerant changed the course of hisotory.

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Hello and welcome back to the English with Stephen podcast. My name is Stephen Greene and today I have another instalment in the series on the origin of the English language.

A few weeks ago, I talked about the end of the last ice age and how horses had almost become extinct except for the area known today as the Steppe in Ukraine and southern Russia.

I finished by talking about the Yanmaya people who lived on the Steppe about 4, 000 years ago. I finished by saying something very strange was about to happen to these people that would result in about 50% of the world speaking a language that evolved from their language.

And now to continue this story after this short break.

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And back to the Yanmaya people and their language.

Between 6 and 4, 000 years ago, humans started to domesticate sheep, cows, and horses. The Yanmaya people, who lived on the Steppe, were a part of this process. They found that horses were especially good for them, but not for transport. They kept horses for meat. The advantage of horses is that when there is snow on the ground, they can clear the snow themselves to find grass. They use their feet to move the snow away and so can eat without help from humans.

Cows and sheep, however, are a bit more stupid. They haven’t learned how to move the snow, so humans either have to do it for them or find some other food source.

So the Yanmay people kept horses. Lots of horses. They would follow the horses around the Steppe and kill an animal when they needed it.

And then, the strange thing happened.

You see, until this time, most people were lactose intolerant. This means that most people could not drink milk. As babies, we were able to drink our mother’s milk, but by the age of 2 or 3, something changed inside the bodies of most humans. The body stopped producing an enzyme that is needed to process milk. Without this enzyme, milk just goes straight through the body, if we are lucky, and can actually cause damage, if we are unlucky.

But the Yanmaya people experienced some sort of genetic change. They didn’t stop producing this enzyme, which meant their bodies could continue to process milk. Obviously, they didn’t continue to drink their mother’s milk, but they had another valuable source of milk: horses.

Being lactose tolerant had some significant advantages. These people now had access to protein all year and they didn’t have to kill their horses to get it. They could drink milk and make cheese and other dairy products.

Having ready access to a protein means the Yanmaya people were taller and stronger than other people at that time. We can see evidence of this from archaeology with the skeletons of people from the Yanmaya tribe being significantly taller than other skeletons.

What we can’t see is the change this protein had on intelligence. However, it is probably true that having lots of protein when young will more than likely lead to higher rates of intelligence when older.

There were other results of this as well. The people stopped using horses for meat as they were too valuable. Over time, they learned how to ride horses and then get horses to pull carts. Nobody knows who or when horses were first used to transport people and their belongings, but the people in this area were probably among the first.

This ability to ride horses had dramatic effects. The people were now able to use a lot more of the land in the Steppe to have sheep and cows. They could travel further, and for longer. This was possible because they could carry water on the horses, as well as food and accommodation.

Being able to cover more land meant they could have more sheep and cows. This made them economically more powerful. They had more resources to eat and to trade.

But it wasn’t just in economics where they had an advantage. They also had an advantage militarily. First of all, this advantage was because they could use their horses. The horses would be helpful in battle, but also allowed them to travel to find enemies quicker and have the element of surprise.

And, if we go back to the fact that these people were probably bigger and stronger, they would have another huge advantage in battle. Not only could they fight for longer, but they could carry heavier weapons and overpower their enemies.

All of these advantages gave the Yanmaya people incredible advantages over their neighbours. And they would use these advantages for many years. They migrated in different directions, they fought battles with many different groups of people, they mixed with other groups. And as they travelled, they brought their language with them.

In three weeks, I will talk again about the Yanmaya people. We will look at where they travelled to and why their language proved so popular.

I hope you are enjoying this history of the English language, even though at the moment it doesn’t seem to have much connection with English itself. We will get there, though, I promise. Trust me, I’m a teacher.

If you have liked this episode, please give it a 5-star rating on your podcast provider. It only takes a second and it really does help to spread the word about this podcast.

Next week, I’ll be back with a learning strategies episode. So I hope to speak to you then.

Take care, and have a great week.

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