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article imageResearchers find evidence of ancient cheese-making

By Leigh Goessl     Dec 14, 2012 in Science
New research has discovered that humans were making cheese several thousands of years ago. According to the study, milk fat remnants have been found in ancient pottery believed to have been used as a sieve.
Fans of aged cheeses have a reason to be excited. Making cheese takes several steps, and researchers say they believe humans were making cheese over 7,000 years ago.
According to several media sources, archeologists found the remains from 34 clay vessels in Kujawy, Poland, noting these pieces of pottery resembled modern cheese strainers that are used to strain out the whey.
When these pottery remnants were examined, they were found to have milk fat residue on them. Previously, milk residues have been found on ancient relics in other places in the world, but those earlier studies could not detect whether or not it was used to make cheese.
Of the pottery found, Melanie Salque, a chemist at Bristol University in England and lead author of the paper, said, "They were very peculiar because they had very small holes in them," reported NPR.
"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," 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."
Reportedly, the archaeologist, who worked as part of the team that originally found the pots, thought the items might have been used for other purposes of straining, but has long mused about cheese-making.
Peter Bogucki has wondered for three decades if they were used to make cheese, but at the time of the discovery of the ancient remnants, there was no way to prove this theory. However, decades later, with modern abilities researchers were able to conduct testing. Bogucki was also involved in writing this study.
"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 Bogucki in a press release. "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."
Cheese also would have prolonged the life of the food source, putting it in a non-perishable and transportable form, said the paper's authors in the study's abstract.
"The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined," the paper's authors said.
The Los Angeles Times shares more information on how Bogucki came to the cheese hypothesis in connection with the pottery.
The research was conducted by a collective effort from Bristol University, the U.S.'s Princeton University and Łódź, Gdánsk and Poznań in Poland. The study was published on Dec. 12 in the journal, Nature.
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