The domestication of cows, the processing of milk and the “invention” and use of dairy products were surely interconnected and probably almost simultaneous. There is now direct evidence that deliberate cheese making with specialist utensils is at least 7000 years old in Europe.
Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe by Mélanie Salque, Peter I. Bogucki, Joanna Pyzel, Iwona Sobkowiak-Tabaka, Ryszard Grygiel, Marzena Szmyt & Richard P. Evershed, Nature (2012) doi:10.1038/nature11698
Summary: The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium BC and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C andΔ13C values of the major fatty acids in mil. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers11, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities.
Figure 1: Drawings of representative reconstructed sieve vessels and photographs of specific sieve fragments from the region of Kuyavia submitted to lipid residue analyses.
Sci-news: 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.