Journal of Economic Growth

, Volume 19, Issue 4, pp 369–406 | Cite as

The role of lactase persistence in precolonial development

  • C. Justin CookEmail author


This paper argues that a genetic adaptation to the Neolithic Revolution led to differential levels of development in the precolonial era. The ability to digest milk, or to be lactase persistent, is conferred by a gene variant that is unequally distributed across the Old World. Milk provided qualitative and quantitative advantages to the diet that led to differences in the carrying capacities of respective countries. It is shown through a number of specifications that country-level variation in the frequency of lactase persistence is positively and significantly related to population density in 1,500 CE; specifically, a one standard deviation increase in the frequency of lactase persistent individuals (roughly 24 percentage points) is associated with roughly a 40 % increase in precolonial population density. This relationship is robust to a large number of sample specifications and potentially omitted variables.


Historical development Genetic diversity Neolithic Revolution  Population density 

JEL Classification

O13 N5 Z13 



I owe thanks to Areendam Chanda for thoughtful discussion and direction; to Quamrul Ashraf, James Feyrer, Oded Galor, David Weil, participants at the 2013 Deep Determinants of International Comparative Development Conference at Brown University, participants at the 2011 Integrating Genetics and the Social Sciences Conference at the University of Colorado, participants at the LSU 3rd year paper presentation, and three anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions; and to Stelios Michalopolous for sharing data on agricultural suitability and Anastasia Litina for suggesting the use of pastoral suitability. All errors and omissions are my own.

Supplementary material

10887_2014_9109_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (144 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (pdf 145 KB) (116 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (zip 116 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and ArtsUniversity of California-MercedMercedUSA

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