Ten thousand years of yoghurt It’s all a matter of culture

stacked yoghurt pots at a market in Beijing

June Hersh

June Hersh

The story is that way back when, Neolithic people discovered that they could eat milk that had gone sour with impunity, even though ordinary milk upset their digestion. The sour milk allowed them to get the nutritional benefit of milk, and also favoured anyone who could actually tolerate a little lactose. And thus was the culture of yoghurt born, helping those Neolithic farmers to move into northern Europe. Fast forward 10,000 years or thereabouts, and the bacteria that soured milk were held to be responsible for the extreme longevity of Bulgarian peasants. That theory gave birth to a craze for Lactobacillus bulgaricus, as it was known, and yoghurt.

All this and more I learned from Yoghurt: A Global History, a recent book by June Hersh. What I still don’t know is why those Neolithic people were even trying to drink milk, if it upset their stomachs. They were keeping sheep and goats, sure, but why were they milking them?


  1. Yoghurt: A Global History is available from Reaktion Books, and for a discount enter Yoghurt21 at checkout.
  2. Metchnikoff is a pretty fascinating character quite apart from his role in the rise of yoghurt. His Nobel biography is an interesting starting place, which naturally leads to a book extract about his public lecture.
  3. It really is very easy to make your own yoghurt at home, though not as easy as kefir.
  4. There will be a transcript.
  5. Banner photo from Nikolaj Potanin on Flickr.

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