Evidence of Cheese Making Dates Back 7500 Years

First Posted: Dec 13, 2012 03:39 AM EST

If you think cheese was invented in modern times then you would be wrong. Prehistoric man living in Northern Europe was already making cheese more than 7,000 years ago, according to a study.

Scientists analyzed fatty acids extracted from unglazed pottery pierced with small holes excavated from archaeological sites in Poland. According to the researchers, the dairy products were processed in these ceramic vessels.

They also carefully analyzed the typology of the sieves that resemble modern cheese-strainers. This provides strong evidence that these specialized vessels were used for cheese-making.

The unglazed pottery from the region of Kuyavia, Poland, dating around 7,000 years ago, was studied by researchers from the Organic Geochemistry Unit at the University of Bristol together with colleagues from Princeton (USA), Lodz Gdansk and Poznari (Poland).

With the help of lipid biomarker and stable isotope analysis, the researchers carefully examined preserved fatty acids trapped in the fabric of the pottery. They then revealed that the sieves had been used for processing dairy products. They even got traces of milk residues in the non perforated bowls.

But on the other hand, when they analyzed the non-perforated pottery they learnt that it was not used for processing milk. Traces of ruminant carcass fats in cooking pots reveal they were used to cook meat. Thus, the analyses of such a range of ceramics from the same area showed for the first time that different types of pottery was used in a specific manner, with sieves being used for cheese-making, cooking pots for cooking meat and waterproofed bottles for storing water.

Prior to this study, milk residue had been detected but it had been impossible to know if the milk was processed to cheese products. The residues were detected in Northwestern Anatolia (8,000 years ago) and in Libya (nearly 7,000 years ago).

Melanie Salque, a PhD student from the University of Bristol and one of the authors of the paper said: "Before this study, it was not clear that cattle were used for their milk in Northern Europe around 7,000 years ago. However, the presence of the sieves in the ceramic assemblage of the sites was thought to be a proof that milk and even cheese was produced at these sites. Of course, these sieves could have been used for straining all sorts of things, such as curds from whey, meat from stock or honeycombs from honey. We decided to test the cheese-making hypothesis by analysing the lipids trapped into the ceramic fabric of the sieves.

"The presence of milk residues in sieves (which look like modern cheese-strainers) constitutes the earliest direct evidence for cheese-making. So far, early evidence for cheese-making was mostly iconographic that is to say murals showing milk processing, which dates to several millennia later than the cheese strainers."

Peter Bogucki one of the co-authors of this new study and proponent of the cheese strainer hypothesis nearly 30 years ago notes that: "As well as showing that humans were making cheese 7,000 years ago, these results provide evidence of the consumption of low-lactose content milk products in Prehistory. Making cheese allowed them to reduce the lactose content of milk, and we know that at that time, most of the humans were not tolerant to lactose. Making cheese is a particularly efficient way to exploit the nutritional benefits of milk, without becoming ill because of the lactose."

The leader of the Bristol team, Professor Richard Evershed added: "It is truly remarkable the depth of insights into ancient human diet and food processing technologies these ancient fats preserved in archaeological ceramics are now providing us with!"

This study was published Dec. 12 in Nature

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