Cheesy evidence

1 minute read

I’m totally socked in with work this week, but this new paper in Nature is an interesting piece of archaeological chemistry relevant to diet change in the European Neolithic: “Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe” Salque:2012.

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 defined1. 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-strainers10, 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 ?13C and ?13C values of the major fatty acids in milk1, 2, 3, 4. 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.

Nice job of narrowing down the function of pots from fragments, following the processing steps that are evidenced in known cases of milk and cheese production. The early presence of cheese making may also be relevant to the selection pressure for lactase persistence – one argument being that cheese and yogurt production make lactase persistence less advantageous relative to non-persistence. If cheese making was there from nearly the start of the Neolithic, that implies that the fitness advantage of lactase persistence was strong even in its presence.