Old Cheese: Insights into early human history

by lomaxboyd

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Image credit: Salque et al., 2013

Hidden unobtrusively in the holes of Neolithic potsherds researchers have discovered the oldest evidence of cheese-making in central Europe dating back to the seventh millennium BC. While European diary farmers would subsequently go on to produce the dizzying array of smokey, smelly, and herb-infused varieties of today, their early attempts at cheese-making were humble, yet life-saving, endeavors.

In seventh millennium BC Europe, early farmers faced the almost constant threat of starvation and malnutrition. However, their transition from hunter-gather groups into agricultural-oriented communities accompanied the domestication of numerous animals (cattle being the most numerous and common ruminant). These hard-won victories of the agricultural revolution were precious and limited commodities that they would have not been eager to sacrifice for an afternoon meal. They needed a way to generate a reliable and nutritious food supply. Milk was readily available and self replenishing.

Yet despite milk’s immediate allure, it was perishable, difficult to store, awkward to transport, and most importantly, hard on the stomachs of these lactose intolerant early European farmers. The evolution of lactose tolerance – the ability to digest the lactose sugars found in milk – would take a few more thousand years. In order for milk to become a more useful resource farmers would need to figure out how to process milk into a more convenient and more digestible form.  Without knowing it, early Europeans entered the cheese-making business.

In work published in the journal Nature, researchers uncovered potsherds of perforated pottery from European archeological sites and subjected them to a variety of CSI-style analytics for traces of cheese-containing compounds. They discovered numerous biomarkers for lipid molecules specific to cheese. The researchers speculated that early farmers used these perforated pots to coagulate milk into gelatinous curds, whereby separating the nutritious protein- and fat-containing parts from the water-soluble lactose sugars. While these early cheeses were far less refined than your typical Parmigiano reggiano or smoked gouda they provided a much-needed supply of protein and fat.

Next time you want to earn the respect of your local cheese-isle aficionados, you can casually mention that the perdurance of European culture, and perhaps many other milk-producing societies, owes a nod to our early affection for cheese.

Original research

Melanie Salque, et al., Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium BC in northern Europe. Nature. 2013

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