Easy Peasy, Ancient Cheesy

Emmental cheese, one of the Swiss cheese varieties. (Image: Christian Bauer)

Whether you’re gaga for Gruyère, bonkers for Brie, or wild about Wensleydale, all cheese lovers have a new reason to celebrate—a breakthrough discovery in the history of cheese-making. A team of scientists announced that they have found the earliest evidence of human cheese-making dating back more than 7,000 years ago in Northern Europe.

Blessed Were the Cheese-Makers

Scientists from the University of Bristol, Princeton University, and several Polish schools analyzed the remnants of 7000-year-old sieves from archaeological sites in Kuyavia, Poland. These pieces of unglazed pottery had lots of small holes in them and resembled modern-day cheese strainers. This striking resemblance led archaeologists to believe they could be ancient cheese-strainers, but they had no hard proof until now.

The team’s findings, published today in Nature, use chemical analysis of the material found around the holes in the pottery. Their tests revealed the presence of fatty acids like those found in milk products, which indicates that dairy substances were processed in them. The presence of these acids provides compelling evidence for the sieves having been used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey, which supports the archaeologists’ original hypothesis.

“Before this study, it was not clear that cattle were used for their milk in Northern Europe around 7,000 years ago,” said Mélanie Salque, a PhD student from the University of Bristol and lead author of the paper. “The presence of milk residues in sieves (which look like modern cheese-strainers) constitutes the earliest direct evidence for cheese-making. So far, early evidence for cheese-making were mostly iconographic, that is to say murals showing milk processing, which dates to several millennia later than the cheese strainers.”

A Bit Runny

The team believes that ancient peoples were making cheese for a number of reasons. Compared to milk, cheese is non-perishable, transportable, and easier to digest. It is believed that Stone Age people were lactose intolerant and had trouble digesting dairy.

Peter Bogucki, co-author of the study, said “Making cheese allowed them to reduce the lactose content of milk, and we know that at that time, most of the humans were not tolerant to lactose.  Making cheese is a particularly efficient way to exploit the nutritional benefits of milk, without becoming ill because of the lactose.”

So what did the cheese of the ancients taste like? Was it salty like Romano, sharp like cheddar, or stinky like Gorgonzola? It’s hard to tell. But given their limited access to salt and the fact that the techniques give us a wide variety of tasty cheeses today had not been developed yet, we can guess that the cheeses were bland and runny, like cottage cheese, Salque and her colleages said.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Focusing on content that entertains, astounds, and informs, Amy Briggs is freelance writer and former senior editor with National Geographic Books . The author of National Geographic Angry Birds Space, Briggs worked closely with National Geographic NewsWatch's David Braun on National Geographic Tales of the Weird. Excited by all things trivial, odd, and just unusual, she lives in Virginia with her family.