Evidence of world's 'oldest' cheese-making found

Feta cheese: BBC Food The cheese thought to have been made was likely to be a soft, cow's milk type

Scientists may be one step closer to uncovering the origins of cheese-making, as evidence thousands of years old has been uncovered. What would a Neolithic cheese have tasted like?

Truly an ancient art, no-one really knows exactly when humans began making cheese.

But now milk extracts have been identified on 34 perforated pottery vessels or "cheese-strainers", which date back 7,500 years that have been excavated in Poland.

It is unambiguous evidence for cheese-making in northern Europe during Neolithic times, scientists believe, and the findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature.

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"We analysed some fragments of pottery from the region of Kuyavia [Poland] pierced with small holes that looked like modern cheese-strainers," says Melanie Salque, a postgraduate student at the University of Bristol's Department of Chemistry.

"They had been thought to be cheese-strainers because of the peculiar presence of holes on the surface.

"However, they could well have been flame covers, chafing dishes, honey strainers or used for beer-making, to strain out chaff.

Ms Salque and her team then analysed lipid residues on the vessels and detected milk residues, which they say provides a link to cheese-making.

"The evidence was stunning," explains Professor Richard Evershed, of Bristol University.

"If you then put together the fact that there are milk fats in with the holes in the vessels, along with the size of the vessels and knowing what we know about how milk products are processed, what other milk product could it be?"

Although scientists have not identified a compound of cheese they have put together a convincing case.

Understanding the find:

Cheese strainer
  • A cheese strainer from Haute-Loire, France, dating back to the beginning of the 20th Century helped inform scientists.
  • Modern and ethnographic cheese strainers were used to build up an understanding of how the perforated pottery vessels found in Poland might have been used during Neolithic times.

Source: Melanie Salque, Bristol University

Is it possible that prehistoric people were making cheese much earlier than 7,500 years ago?

"The most important ingredient for cheese-making is milk and only domesticates can be milked. Thus, it is unlikely that the origins of cheese-making predates the Neolithic," says Ms Salque.

Earlier examples of milk residues have been detected on pottery vessels from the Near East, dating back 8,000 years, although the evidence did not suggest that they were used for milk processing activities, explains Ms Salque.

The only other written evidence for cheese-making activity occurs much later in the archaeological record, around 5,000 years ago.

"The question is how long did it take for people to figure out the technology of transforming that milk into fermented products and eventually into cheese, and that's really hard to say," says Dr Peter Bogucki of Princeton University.

"I think we can say that it's a key Neolithic innovation to be able to produce a storable product from something perishable and hard to handle like milk, and to do it routinely and repetitively, with continual refinement and that within a few millennia after the domestication of cattle, sheep, and goats we can talk about cheese production."

What would have prompted Neolithic people to start making cheese?

A history of cheese:

Parmesan cheese: BBC Food

Parmesan originates from the 13th century and is mentioned in Giovanni Boccaccio's text "Decameron" - where he describes "a mountain made of grated parmigiano cheese". Parmesan was popular in Britain in the 16th Century when Pope Julius II offered King Henry VIII a gift of a hundred Parmesan cheeses.

Brie was the cheese of royalty in France during the 14th Century when it was served at the banquets of kings. The anonymous "bourgeois de Paris" wrote in his diary of events at the time that the severity of surrounding warfare could be measured by whether brie cheeses reached Paris.

Cheshire is one of Britain's oldest cheeses, dating back to the 12th Century, soon after the Domesday Book. The variety of cheese making traditions in Britain developed for the first time in medieval times, from about 11th or 12th Century when people in different regions of Britain started experimenting with different styles of cheese production.

Source: Andrew Dalby's "Cheese: A Global History"

Neolithic farming communities were lactose intolerant, so transforming raw milk into cheese made the milk easier to digest, and also easier to preserve and transport, scientists believe.

"Processing milk into cheese allows the lactose content of milk to be reduced. And genetic and computer simulations have shown that at that time, people were largely lactose intolerant," explains Ms Salque.

"So making cheese allowed them to consume dairy products without the undesirable health effects."

"It also shows that humans were not only killing animals for their meat, but also using what animals could produce and go on producing," says Andrew Dalby, author of "Cheese: A Global History."

Creating cheese from milk was also thought to be a much more economical way of farming in Neolithic times, following the domestication of cattle in the Near East.

"You can get milk but you can't store milk, so the really important invention is how to store the food value of milk and that really means making cheese," says Mr Dalby.

The discovery of cheese could also have been accidental, as humans began storing milk in animal stomachs for transportation.

"The introduction of salt into cheese might have started right from the beginning... perhaps without any conscious thought because you need rennet [a complex of enzymes] to curdle your cheese," says Mr Dalby.

"If you're in the Near East and you've milked your cow and you put it in a pottery vessel, leave it at 40C in the hot summer heat of Turkey, after two or three hours you've got yoghurt. You can imagine serendipity playing a huge role in this," says Prof Evershed.

So what might a prehistoric cheese have tasted like?

Agricultural origins:

Goat

Farming is often thought of as a one of the biggest changes in human history, when people began to produce food rather than just hunt and gather it.

Farming reached Britain between about 5000 BC and 4500 BC after coming across Europe from origins in Syria and Iraq between about 11000 BC and 9000 BC.

How the dawn of farming changed food

"The study of animal bones... shows that cattle were the most common domesticates at the sites. So - cow's milk cheese," says Ms Salque.

"I guess it would have been like the traditional cheese you can get, maybe made simply by curdling milk with rennet.

"In France we have the Picodon, traditionally made in farms with cow or goats milk, that you curdle and then strain in a cheese strainer... I would imagine that the Prehistoric cheese would have been like this.

"It's likely to have been a softer cheese."

Andrew Dalby says the taste of the cheese may have changed according to the season.

"Similar to those they make in the region of France where I live, the result can be quite different depending on the season.

"Sometimes they harden and would in fact keep and still give good value months later.

"It would have been a very long series - hundreds, thousands of years of experiment and that's what resulted in the vast range of cheeses that we have now."

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