January 23, 2013

Ancient Europeans advanced early dairy science

This drawing shows how the pottery could have been part of a milk strainer. Residue analysis on the pottery shards proves it was used to processed milk fat. Image from Nature

Move over, Milwaukee. Looks like ancient Europe had a head start in perfecting cheese.

For years, archaeologists found unusual shards of pottery in Poland. The pottery was from 6,000 BC. It had tiny holes, and some wondered if it was used for straining honey or covering lamps. Today, scientists have an answer. In a recent issue of Nature, an international group of scientists showed that the special pottery was used by Neolithic humans to separate milk curds from whey.

The discovery was archaeology meets dairy science. The researchers analyzed fatty acids trapped in the pottery to prove that people used the pottery for straining milk fat. This is the earliest known evidence for cheese making.

Early cheese making would have had a big impact on human diets. People could have preserved nutrient-rich cheese to get them through cold winters. They could also have transported animal protein more easily.

Dairy production was not a natural choice for ancient Europeans. During the Neolithic period, most people were lactose intolerant. However, whey retains lactose. By separating whey from milk curds, people could have enjoyed low-lactose cheese.

Neolithic farmers also had an economic incentive for cheese making. Cattle would have eaten valuable grain that could have gone to humans. To make cattle herding profitable, farmers would have needed to sell milk products from the cattle before slaughter. Like today, dairy cattle were dual-purpose animals. This theory also explains why many ancient dig sites contain remains from cattle but not pigs.

Read the full paper in Nature

Related article:

Monks used animal skins for famous manuscript