Scientists pinpoint the age of cheese: 7,000 years old and counting

December 15, 2012

(science recorder.) Scientists have reportedly discovered pottery fragments that suggest cheese-making is a much older process than previously thought. The pottery pieces, which have small holes throughout, are thought to be more than 7,000 years old and may have been used to separate curds from whey, according to a newly published article.
According to the article in the journal Nature, the pottery fragments were discovered along a river in Poland and have been determined to be the oldest piece of evidence of cheese-making ever found. The pieces are expected to help researchers further understand the development of dairy in the ancient world, which had a big impact on human history and culture.
Peter Bogucki, an archaeologist at Princeton University, said the development of dairy, especially cheese, helped the people of Neolithic age get valuable nutrients. Most adults at the time could not eat large amounts of cheese due to lactose intolerance. However, being able to separate the curds from the why solved this problem as most of the lactose remained in the uneaten whey.
“In the course of excavating these sites, we occasionally came across fragments of pottery with small holes in them,” Bogucki recalled. “We realized these were sieves. There weren’t many of them, but still a few at just about every site.
“A couple of years later, I was with my wife visiting a friend in Vermont, and I saw these 19th-century agricultural implements, including ceramics that were perforated much like the ones in Poland,” Bogucki said. “These were used for cheese manufacturing.”
Bogucki has been studying ancient relics in Poland for nearly 35 years of excavations. In addition to discovering the pottery with holes, he and his team also discovered that farmers in the area herded cattle and grew numerous crops. Initially, Bogucki and his team of archeologists did not give much consideration to the pottery pieces they found. However, after learning about ancient cheese making after seeing a 19th century pottery piece with holes in it, Bogucki took a closer look.
“The transformation of milk to a more tolerable product such as cheese for lactose-intolerant people may have helped promote the development of dairying among the first farmers of Europe,” Bogucki said in an interview with LiveScience.
Since then, Bogucki has suggested that the holes in pottery pieces found in Central Europe and Poland were for cheese making. However, there could have been other explanations for the holes, say some scientists. Such pieces of pottery may have been used for transporting hot coals, separating honey from honeycombs, and manufacturing beer.
Oliver Craig, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of York, said the finding doesn’t answer all of the questions. According to Craig, the DNA mutations leading lactose tolerance in adults spread quickly through Europe around the time the pottery was being used, so why was the strained needed?
“Perhaps the sieves were not as effective at removing lactose as we might think,” he said.
A research team led by University of Bristol professor Richard P. Evershed have studied the pottery fragments and determined that they contain milk and fat residues, lending evidence to the cheese theory. Evershed’s team focused on the chemical analysis of ancient pottery to determine what people were eating at the time and how they processed the food.
Previously Evershed’s lab has found milk fats in pottery pieces from Turkey that are more than 8,000 years old. However, this study did not conclusively mean cheese was being made, it could have been butter, yogurt, or another milk product. The new study in Poland is the first to strongly suggest cheese was being made due to the strainer-like appearance of the pots.
Whatever the state of lactose tolerance of the time, it is now certain that ancient people as far back as 7,000 years ago were able to make and sustain on cheese.