The origins of cheese revealed

Nicky Phillips
Major innovation ... the emergence of dairying enabled the supply of nutritious food without the slaughtering of livestock.
Major innovation ... the emergence of dairying enabled the supply of nutritious food without the slaughtering of livestock. Photo: Eddie Jim

FOR those who enjoy a slice of creamy camembert or a wedge of aged cheddar, be thankful our ancestors were lactose intolerant.

Scientists have analysed a collection of pottery fragments, approximately 5000 years old, that are laced with milk fat and believe they provide the earliest evidence of cheesemaking.

The researchers suspect early European farmers, who had not developed the biological enzymes to process lactose as adults, turned milk into cheese because it was easier to digest, transport and store.

<i>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</i>
Illustration: Cathy Wilcox 

The gene that helps adults break down lactose spread throughout some human populations about 7500 years ago, around the same time dairy farming emerged in Europe.

‘‘The emergence of dairying was a major innovation in prehistoric societies, enabling the supply of nutritious food without the slaughtering of precious livestock,’’ the study’s lead author, chemist Richard Evershed from the University of Bristol, said.

Professor Evershed’s international team suggest that the 50 pottery fragments, from 34 specialised pottery vessels, were used by early farmers as sieves to separate the fat-rich curd from the whey that contained lactose.

The pottery fragments were excavated from a region of central Europe – modern Poland – that became the birthplace of the continent’s first farmers, who cultivated plants and domestic animals during a period of human history known as the New Stone Age.

While cheesemaking has been linked to older pottery fragments, it was only with the help of sophisticated analytic techniques that Professor Evershed and his colleagues were able to show that the presence of fatty acids residue in the Polish pots was linked to milk processing.

While the team found fat from animal tissue in other cooking pots, which were probably used to process cattle, sheep or goat carcasses, traces of milk fats were found in the sieve fragments.

‘‘The specific features of the pots, characterised by the presence of randomly distributed holes, support arguments in favour of the use for cheese making, as butter making would not require such technology,’’ they said.

Beeswax was also detected in three sieves, most likely used to waterproof the vessels or to turn cheese out of a mould.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.