New Analysis Shows Cheese Has Been Around For 7,000 Years
December 13, 2012

New Analysis Shows Cheese Has Been Around For 7,000 Years

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Cheese is, and has been for centuries, one of the most popular food products. The National Dairy Council recognizes over 400 varieties in the U.S. alone. Roman legionnaires were given hard cheeses as part of their daily rations when on military maneuvers, and Pliny's Natural History, written in 77 CE, devotes an entire chapter to describing the variety of cheeses enjoyed by Romans.

A team of scientists led by the University of Bristol, UK, has shown unequivocal evidence that prehistoric Northern European humans were making cheese more than 7,000 years ago. The findings of this study were recently published in the journal Nature.

The team studied fatty acids extracted from unglazed pottery excavated from archaeological sites in Poland. These ceramic vessels, pierced with small holes, were proven to have been used to process dairy products.

Together with colleagues from Princeton in the US, and several Polish Universities, researchers from Bristol's Organic Geochemistry Unit studied unglazed pottery from the Kuyavia region of Poland. The pottery dated from approximately 7,000 years ago. The pots had been typologically interpreted as cheese-strainers for more than 30 years by archaeologists because of the presence of the small holes on the surface of the sherds. These sherds (or sieves) look like modern cheese-strainers, in fact.

The current team used lipid biomarkers and stable isotope analysis to examine preserved fatty acids trapped in the fabric of the pottery, showing that the sieves had been used for processing dairy products as thought. Non-perforated bowls showed the presence of milk residues, suggesting they were used in conjunction with the sieves.

The team analyzed other non-perforated pottery — cooking pots and bottles — which showed no signs of having been used to process milk. Instead, the team found the presence of ruminant carcass fats in these vessels, suggesting that they were used to cook meat. The bottles had evidence of beeswax as sealants, suggesting that they were used to store water and other liquids.

Analyzing such a range of pottery from the same region revealed, for the first time, that different types of pottery were used in a specific manner. Sieves and possibly small bowls were used for dairy processing, pots for cooking meats and bottles for storing water.

The advent of dairy processing was critical in early agricultural societies. It allowed for the preservation of milk in a non-perishable and easily transportable form. It also made milk into a more digestible commodity for early farmers.

Mélanie Salque, University of Bristol Ph.D. student, 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 were mostly iconographic, that is to say murals showing milk processing, which dates to several millennia later than the cheese strainers."

"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," added Peter Bogucki, who was a proponent of the cheese-strainer hypothesis nearly 30 years ago.

Professor Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol noted, "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!"