First European Cheese May Have Been Made Around 5,000 BC

Scientists led by University of Bristol’s biogeochemist Prof Richard Evershed say they have evidence that humans in prehistoric Europe were making cheese as early as 7,000 years ago.

Previous studies have detected milk residues in early sites in Northwestern Anatolia (6,000 BC) and in Libya (5,000 BC). Nevertheless, it had been impossible to detect if the milk was processed to cheese products.

By analyzing fatty acids extracted from 7,000-year-old unglazed pottery pierced with small holes unearthed in the region of Kuyavia in Poland, the team showed that dairy products were processed in these ceramic vessels.

Using lipid biomarker and stable isotope analysis, the scientists examined preserved fatty acids trapped in the fabric of the pottery and showed that the sieves had indeed been used for processing dairy products. Milk residues were also detected in non-perforated bowls, which may have been used with the sieves. Contrastingly, the analyses of non-perforated pottery demonstrated that they were not used for processing milk. The presence of ruminant carcass fats in cooking pots showed that they were likely used to cook meat, while the presence of beeswax in bottles suggests the sealing of the pottery to store water.

Thus, the analyses of such a range of ceramics from the same area showed for the first time that different types of pottery were used in a specific manner, with sieves being used for cheese-making, cooking pots for cooking meat and waterproofed bottles for storing water.

The processing of milk and particularly the production of cheese were critical in early agricultural societies as it allowed the preservation of milk in a non-perishable and transportable form and, of primary importance, it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers.

Mélanie Salque, a PhD student from the University of Bristol and lead author on the paper reporting the discovery in the journal Nature, said “before this study, it was not clear that cattle were used for their milk in Northern Europe around 7,000 years ago. However, the presence of the sieves in the ceramic assemblage of the sites was thought to be a proof that milk and even cheese was produced at these sites. Of course, these sieves could have been used for straining all sorts of things, such as curds from whey, meat from stock or honeycombs from honey. We decided to test the cheese-making hypothesis by analyzing the lipids trapped into the ceramic fabric of the sieves.

“The presence of milk residues in sieves 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.”

“It is truly remarkable the depth of insights into ancient human diet and food processing technologies these ancient fats preserved in archaeological ceramics are now providing us with!” said Prof Richard Evershed.

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Bibliographic information: Salque M et al. Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe. Nature, published online 12 December, 2012; doi: 10.1038/nature11698