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K. Kris Hirst

Ancient Art of Cheese-Making

By December 13, 2012

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A new study published in Nature this week reports evidence that cheese-making occurred on Neolithic Linearbandkeramik sites in central Europe as early as 7,500 years ago.

Separating Curds and Whey
A modern cheese maker illustrates the cheese strainer concept. Ratha Grimes

Domestication of cattle and goats occurred about 10,000 years ago, and, so the theory goes, people began exploiting goats and cattle for wool, milk and blood about a thousand years after that. Until this century, however, the only evidence for ancient Neolithic people making products like cheese and yogurt was perforated pottery, that looked a lot like modern day cheese strainers.

Using chemical analysis of microscopic residues inside pots, scholars have been able to identify the milk fats left behind by cheese production: and in the new article by Salque and colleagues published in Nature today, they connect the dots, discovering milk residues inside the perforated pottery.

Read more about RP Evershed's Paleodetectives (Bristol University)

Salque M, Bogucki P, Pyzel J, Sobkowiak-Tabaka I, Grygiel R, Szmyt M, and Evershed RP. 2012. Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium BC in northern Europe. Nature: in press.


December 18, 2012 at 8:15 am
(1) sheila says:

The summary given, of domestication of cattle followed, some considerable time later, by dairying, puts the cow before the pail. Animals are only ever domesticated because they are already exploited in the wild form, and there is some pressing reason- a threat to their survival, or a desire for greater convenience and reliability – for having them more closely controlled.

The European tolerance of lactase is very high and unique in the world. This forces us to push exploitation of milk (initially the milk of reindeer or aurochs) back to a time before the settlement of Europe. The only possible explanation of the modern pattern, though it has decayed where alternative sounces of food are available, is that all the people who settled Europe in the Late Palaeolithic were milk-tolerant.

We have never ever domesticated a plant, insect or animal that we did not already exploit in the wild state. Prior familiarity with the species is in every case an essential aspect of the process. In the case of cattle, exploitation implies taming, not domestication (and not dairying) which is an entirely separate development.

Every new discovery pushes our dates back further in time. We still have a long way to go with this.

December 21, 2012 at 9:48 am
(2) Kris Hirst says:

Well, I’m not sure I can agree with Sheila when she says ” The only possible explanation of the modern pattern, though it has decayed where alternative sounces of food are available, is that all the people who settled Europe in the Late Palaeolithic were milk-tolerant. ” How is that even possible–where did the milk-tolerant people come from? I’m afraid at the moment, the prevailing argument–that milk tolerance was an evolutionary change in Europeans as they started to consume milk regularly–is a far more plausible answer.

December 18, 2012 at 9:37 am
(3) Frits Arink says:

Seems a sound argument to me.
Thank you, Sheila !

December 18, 2012 at 11:42 am
(4) Mathew Panamkat says:

I agree with Sheila. Her comments make sense. However, there is one case where domestication has caused extermination. This is the case of the the unicorn that flourished in the Indus Valley. But after the invasion of the Aryans, the species of died out, either because they did not know how domesticate them or because they never bothered to do so. The unicorn, according to some theorists, is a different species of rhinocerous still in existence in eastern India. The Unicorn was esxterminated, because their blood was drained out to make soma juice by the Aryans (described in the Vedas). But heir overexploitation exterminated the species.

December 23, 2012 at 11:51 pm
(5) Ken in San Jose says:

Most likely animals were domesticated as beast of burden or for their wool before being used as a source for milk. Probably after domesticating the goat for its wool, one goat’s kid died while another kid’s mother died. Needing milk for the kid, and other goats would not suckle the motherless kid, people did the milking and feeding by hand. And if the goat could be milked for feeding another kid, why not drink or use the milk ourselves. Thus using animals for their milk.

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