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. Here is the transcript
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  6. Banner photo from Nikolaj Potanin on Flickr.

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  1. Anne

    Why were they even trying to drink milk if it upset their stomachs? That’s not a great mystery. In the parts of the Near East and Central Asia where people first domesticated goats/sheep/cattle, the animals’ reproductive schedules were nothing like the year-round system we have today. They gave birth and came into milk as the weather was warming up. When they reached peak production, local daytime temperatures could easily reach more than 100 degrees F (40-plus C) and milk could go sour within a few hours of milking. So the precursors of yogurt could have almost invented themselves.

    1. Jeremy Cherfas

      Thank you Anne. Doesn’t that pre-suppose that one reason people domesticated sheep, goats and cattle was in order to milk them, rather than to have a source of meat that did not require hunting. I think that’s the unspoken part of my question. Why were people milking those first domesticated animals?

      1. Anne

        Animal domestication for meat came first. I discuss the issue at length in a book about the history of milk leading up to today’s gigantic industry, to be published in the US (probably in about a year) by Columbia University Press.

  2. Pingback: Nibbles: Orphan crops, False banana, Kava, Old corn, Food museum, Yoghurt, Neolithic, Wheat breeding, Trees, Old clove, Monoculture history

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