New Evidence that People Have Been Making Cheese for 7500 Years

It's cheese. CHEESE! They found cheese (well, traces of cheese — dairy fat, to be exact) in neolithic fragments of ceramic pottery dating to 5,500 B.C., and that's a big deal.

It's a big deal for a few reasons. One: cheese is delicious. The most delicious. I've met a few people in my life who don't like cheese, and every one of them — barring the lactose intolerant, of course — has been a slippery, duplicitous scoundrel (or, at least, a difficult dinner guest).

Two: cheese-making is a great way to preserve milk from cattle. Pre-refrigerator food-preservation was a key step in our ancestors' transition from nomadism. Early humans were also ill-equipped, gastrointestinally and enzymatically speaking, to digest lactose after childhood. Traditionally-made cheeses contain much less lactose than fresh milk, which helped address lactose intolerance for thousands of years before the relatively recent evolution of lactase persistence.

Three: (Back to cheese being delicious, and the art of its production) As chemist and study co-author Richard Evershed points out in an interview with Nature News' Nidhi Subbaraman, "This is the first and only evidence of [Neolithic] cheese-making in the archaeological record," and helps "[build] a picture for me, as a European, of where we came from: the origins of our culture and cuisines."

In other words, foodie-ism (at least European foodie-ism — evidence of dairy farming has been found at archaeological sites in Istanbul dating all the way back to the seventh millenium BC) may have roots in cheese-making. Which, I guess, should really come at no surprise.

Writes Subbaraman:

In a paper published in Nature, [archaeologist Peter Bogucki] and his collaborators [confirmed that strainer-like ceramic vessels] were used to separate dairy fats. Mélanie Salque, a chemist at the University of Bristol, UK, used gas chromatography and carbon-isotope ratios to analyse molecules preserved in the pores of the ancient clay, and confirmed that they came from milk fats. "This research provides the smoking gun that cheese manufacture was practiced by Neolithic people 7,000 years ago," says Bogucki.

"It's one small step, but it's filling out the picture of that transition from nomadism," says Heather Paxson, a cultural anthropologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who studies US artisan cheese-makers. She suggests that Neolithic people might have curdled their milk with bacteria that are found in nature, resulting in a clumpy version of modern mozzarella.

Mozzarella, as everyone knows, is the second-best cheese on Earth, second only to goat (cheap, available, but still stands out) and ranked slightly higher than parmesan (easily transportable, doesn't sweat).

The researchers' findings are published in the latest issue of Nature.

[Nature via Nature News]

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