How humans have made cheese for more than 8,000 years
Man has been making and eating cheese for more than 8,000 years, a new study has concluded.
6:30AM GMT 13 Dec 2012
Researchers using special chemical analysis found the first cheese making in Northern Europe took place in the 6th millennium BC.
The first unequivocal evidence that humans in prehistoric times made cheese more than 8,000 years ago was uncovered in research led by the University of Bristol.
By analysing fatty acids extracted from unglazed pottery pierced with small holes excavated from archaeological sites in Poland, the researchers showed that dairy products were processed in these ceramic vessels.
The nature of the sieves, close in shape to modern cheese-strainers, provides compelling evidence that these specialised vessels have been used for cheese-making.
Before the study, milk residues had been detected in early sites in Northwestern Anatolia (8,000 years ago) and in Libya (nearly 7,000 years ago).
It has been, however, impossible to detect if the milk was processed to cheese products.
Prof Richard Evershed, the leader of the Bristol team, said: “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.”
Researchers from the university’s Organic Geochemistry Unit, together with colleagues from the United States and Poland studied unglazed pottery from the region of Kuyavia dating from around 7,000 years ago.
The international team of scientists examined preserved fatty acids trapped in the fabric of the pottery and showed that the sieves had indeed been used for processing dairy products.
Milk residues were also detected in non-perforated bowls, which may have been used with the sieves.
The processing of milk and particularly the production of cheese were critical in early agricultural societies as it allowed the preservation of milk in a non-perishable and transportable form and it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers.
Mélanie Salque, 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.”
She added: “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.”
The findings were published in the journal Nature.