Monday, December 17, 2012

Ancient Cheese Makers

An article in the journal Nature last week (abstract available here) provides definitive evidence for cheese making in Northwest Anatolia, ca. 5000 BCE.  This was based on the detection and identification of milk sourced organic chemicals that had seeped into pottery of that age, with shapes that were consistent with them being cheese strainers and that matches what seeps into similar cheese strainers today.  Until now, other purposes for the strainers (e.g. in beer making) had also been viable possibilities.

This date is particularly notable because this early Neolithic revolution date is at a time when we know, based upon ancient DNA evidence, that adult lactose tolerance was rare or non-existent.  Cheese is digestable by lactose intolerant individuals even when cow's milk is not.  Thus, dairying for cheese was probably an important part of cattle herding long before dairying for milk gained importance in the Neolithic diet.  This gives us a quite intimate and detailed insight into the pattern of daily life and subsistence for some of the first farmers in West Eurasian Neolithic villages.

The location of the ancient cheese strainers that were found (many years ago), and tested for milk chemicals in the research leading to this publication, also suggests that cheese making had been developed before farming and herding spread from the Fertile Crescent into the rest of Europe.  Some researchers had strongly considered the possibility that the dairying aspect of cattle herding might have instead been a European innovation.

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