Scientists have found the first clear evidence that humans made cheese more than 7,000 years ago in prehistoric Europe.
An international team of researchers, led by the University of Bristol in the U.K., analyzed fatty acids extracted from unglazed pottery found at archeological sites in Poland, and determined the vessels were used for dairy products.
"The presence of milk residues in sieves, which look like modern cheese-strainers, constitutes the earliest direct evidence for cheese-making," said Melanie Salque, a PhD student from the University of Bristol, in a statement.
"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."
Prior to this study, these ancient shards of unglazed of pottery — which are perforated with small holes — were thought to be used to strain milk for cheese production, said Salque, one of the co-authors of the study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Quirks and Quarks
Listen to CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks on Dec. 15 for an interview with Richard Evershed, who co-authored the study of ancient cheesemaking at the University of Bristol.
However, it was unclear whether the ceramic vessels, from the region of Kuyavia (Poland) were used for other purposes, such as straining honey from the honeycomb.
Milk residues had been found in sites in Northwestern Anatolia, dating back to 8,000 years ago, and in Libya, stretching back 7,000 years, but scientists weren't sure whether the dairy products were used to make cheese.
But testing conducted by researchers at the University of Bristol, Princeton University, and scientists in Lodz, Gdansk and Poznan in Poland showed that their hunches were correct, Salque said.
The shards — with their randomly distributed holes — and the high concentration of milk residues embedded into the surface of the pottery points towards their use for the dairy delicacy, the researchers say.
"As well as showing that humans were making cheese 7,000 years ago, these results provide evidence of the consumption of low-lactose content milk products in Prehistory," said Peter Bogucki, one of the study's co-authors.
"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."