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Ancient cheese

27 Mar, 2013

Researchers have detected dairy fats on fragments of pottery that are over 7000 years old. The pottery was used to strain milk to make cheese.

Ancient Polish pottery fragments

It seems humans have been practising the art of biotechnology – at least when it comes to cheesemaking – a lot longer than previously thought. Fragments of 34 perforated pottery vessels discovered in Poland and dating to the 6th millennium BC (around 7500 years ago) were used to strain milk in order to make cheese, according to researchers who detected dairy fats on the surface of the fragments.

Earliest evidence of cheesemaking

The findings, published in Nature magazine, represent the earliest direct evidence of cheesemaking and highlight the importance of pottery vessels in the processing of dairy products. They were especially important in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities.

Researchers at the University of Bristol, Princeton University, Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography in Łódź, University of Gdánsk and Poznań Archaeological Museum, Poland, studied unglazed pottery from the region of Kuyavia dating from around 7500 years ago. The researchers suspected they were dealing with cheese-strainers (vessels used to separate milk into fat-rich curds and lactose-containing whey, and cheese is then made from the curds). This is due to the peculiar presence of small-sized holes on the surface of the sherds (a fragment of pottery). They reported that the archaeological sherds when assembled actually looked like modern cheese-strainers.

Lipid biomarker and stable isotope analysis

However, the sieves could have been used for any number of purposes such as straining meat from stock or honeycombs from honey. To confirm the identification, the researchers used lipid biomarker and stable isotope analysis to examine preserved fatty acids trapped in the fabric of the pottery. This showed that the sieves had indeed been used for processing dairy products. In addition, milk residues were also detected in non-perforated bowls, which may have been used with the sieves.

Ruminant animal fat on other pottery

Analysis of other non-perforated pottery found at the site found the pots contained ruminant animal fats (such as from goats, sheep and cows) rather than milk residues and were likely used to cook meat. The presence of beeswax in bottles suggests the sealing of the pottery to store water.

In a press release from the University of Bristol in the UK, the researchers write that the analyses of the ceramics from the same area “showed for the first time that different types of pottery were used in a specific manner, with sieves [and possibly some bowls] being used for cheesemaking, cooking pots for cooking meat and waterproofed bottles for storing water”.

Importance of cheese in prehistoric times

“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.”

The researchers say the presence of milk residues in the sieves constitutes the earliest direct evidence for cheesemaking. “So far, early evidence for cheesemaking was mostly iconographic, that is to say murals showing milk processing, which dates to several millennia later than the cheese strainers.”

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