Supporting Miss. Muffet in the sixth millenium BC

25 February 2013 by Stephanie Swift, posted in Archaeology, Evolution, Science

I love cheese. Oh, how I do. Hard cheese, soft cheese, hole-y cheese, crumbly cheese, squidgy cheese - all of them will find a warm and welcoming home in my mouth. While deliciousness alone seals the place of cheese at my table, historically, converting milk into a processed dairy product like cheese had a lot of benefits. Cheese kept a lot longer without going off (a big deal when you didn't have any way to keep food cool and fresh), was easy to transport and trade, and was digested much more easily by the human gut. It also meant a continuous supply of food throughout the year without needing to kill animals for meat.

Making cheese back in prehistoric times was not a trivial process: first, milk had to be coagulated to produce a mixture of semi-solid curds and liquid whey. Then, the liquid had to be strained off, and the remaining curds pressed to solidify into cheese. There is now delicious historical evidence that in early Neolithic times, small pottery vessels poked through with lots of randomly-placed holes were used as designated cheese strainers. Researcher's analysed and compared shards of pottery from either these sieve-like vessels or from three 'general' types of cooking pots, bowls and collared flasks, all of which were unearthed in archaeological digs along the Vistula river in Kuyavia, Poland, and dated to around 5000 BC. Fats extracted from the surfaces of these different pot shards showed a marked concentration of fresh dairy animal fats and fatty acids from milk bacterial populations in the vessels with holes, but not in the general pots, bowls and flasks. These specialised kitchen tools currently represent the earliest evidence for the innovative introduction of cheese making in humans.

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