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Study confirms prehistoric cheese-making

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Chunks of Swiss cheese. Photo via Wikipedia and the Creative Commons.

Researchers analyze fatty acids extracted from pottery found in northern Europe

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Along with being a choice gourmet item for foodies, cheese has been a staple in many cultures around the world for centuries, as a transportable and digestible dairy product.

New research shows that cheese-making probably pre-dates previous estimates by quite a while. After analyzing fatty acids extracted from unglazed ceramic pottery, scientists say prehistoric people in northern Europe were making cheese as long as 7,000 years ago.

“Before this study, it was not clear that cattle were used for their milk in Northern Europe around 7,000 years ago,” said Mélanie Salque, a PhD student from the University of Bristol and one of the authors of the paper. “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<” Salque said. “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,” she said.

“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,” Salque added.

Before this study, milk residues had been detected in early sites in Northwestern Anatolia (8,000 years ago) and in Libya (nearly 7,000 years ago). Nevertheless, it had been impossible to detect if the milk was processed to cheese products.

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, of primary importance, it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers.

“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,” said Peter Bogucki, one of the co-authors of this new study and proponent of the cheese strainer hypothesis. “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.”

“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,” said Professor Richard Evershed, leader of the Bristol.

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