When Did We Start Making Cheese, and Why?
It was at least 7,000 years ago that humans started making cheese. That’s according to researchers who analyzed the residue in pottery that had been excavated from early Neolithic sites in Poland. The new study was published in the journal Nature.
The shards of pottery were discovered in the 1970s, but archaeologists weren’t sure at first what to make of the small holes in them. New techniques for analyzing the residue suggest that the pottery was used as sieves to process milk into cheese. “The analysis doesn’t tell us whether the milk was from sheep or goat or cattle,” said Melanie Salque, a chemist at the University of Bristol in England and the study’s lead author. “But on the site more than 90 percent of the bones were cattle bones, so cattle is very likely.”
Incorporating dairy into the human diet contributed to the development of modern civilization. “For people who were just beginning to leave hunting behind and beginning to rely on crops that often failed,” Adam Cole and Helen Thompson of NPR report, dairy provided the nutrition they needed. And it was “a food source that didn’t require killing highly prized livestock.”
Like many people today, however, Neolithic Europeans were lactose intolerant. Making and eating cheese gave them an evolutionary advantage, because cheese was milk made digestible, and milk, one evolutionary geneticist called it, was “the ultimate superfood.” To make cheese, milk is curdled with an acidic substance, after which the “fat-rich milk curds” are separated from “the lactose-containing whey” using cheese strainers like those pottery sieves.
While Neolithic humans were adapting to milk as a food source by processing it into cheese, many were also benefiting from a mutation in their genes that enabled them to digest the lactose in milk. “Presumably the extra nutrition was of such great advantage,” the New York Times reported, “that adults able to digest milk left more surviving offspring, and the genetic change swept through the population.”
One way or the other, people managed to incorporate dairy into their diets. It’s nothing short of fascinating that diet was a force of natural selection in evolution — heavily favoring, in some populations, those who evolved to digest milk. In Africa, the lactose tolerant left up to 10 times as many descendants as those who could not drink milk.
But humans are also a resourceful bunch, and it’s equally fascinating that we figured out how to process milk into cheese for the sake of survival. The first cheeses people made were basic. Today, several millennia later, cheese is a major industry on its own, with possibly more than 1,000 varieties now available.
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