A team of scientists from Princeton University and the University of Bristol, UK, have discovered traces of dairy fat in ancient ceramic fragments, indicating that humans have been making cheese in Europe for up to 7,500 years. Early dairy farmers probably devised cheese-making as a way to preserve milk.
The scientists published their findings in the journal Nature. In the 1980s, it was thought that Neolithic farmers had found a way to preserve milk as early as 5,500 BC. In the new study, scientists have biochemical proof that the strainers used to separate dairy fat are at least 7,000 years old. They used gas chromatography and carbon-isotope ratios to analyze the molecules preserved in the pores of the ancient clay.
This is the first evidence of Neolithic cheese-making in the archaeological record. This shows that humans had learned to use sophisticated technology, but it’s also evidence of the complex relationship with animals that went beyond simple hunting.
Cheese-making would have allowed the Neolithic farmers to get the most out of their herds. Early humans were unable to digest lactose after childhood. Traditionally made cheese contains less lactose than fresh milk, so the making of cheese would have allowed the farmers to get around the indigestibility of milk without getting ill.
Heather Paxson, a cultural anthropologist at MIT in Cambridge, who studies US artisan cheese-makers, suggests that Neolithic people might have curdled their milk with bacteria found in nature, resulting in a clumpier version of modern-day mozzarella.
Reference: “Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe” by Mélanie Salque, Peter I. Bogucki, Joanna Pyzel, Iwona Sobkowiak-Tabaka, Ryszard Grygiel, Marzena Szmyt and Richard P. Evershed, 12 December 2012, Nature.