Saturday, December 15, 2012

Neolithic Cheese

New physical evidence shows that cheese was made much earlier than was previously believed.

According to this BBC article (which I found thanks to David Beard's Archaeology in Europe blog), archaeologists in Poland have found fragments of ceramic pots containing holes. Of course, a ceramic pot with holes in the bottom could have been used for straining fermented curds generated in cheese-making. But even though such a pot may look like a modern cheese-strainer, it could also have been used for other purposes. Why assume that the fragments are evidence of a pot that was used for the making of cheese? 

The answer is that the archaeologists performed tests that found residues of milk and milk fat on the fragments--clear evidence that the pot had been used for processing milk products. The type of cheese that would have been made is the kind of soft cheese often called "farmer"s cheese" today. The fragments themselves are estimated to be about 7,500 years old.

More details about the archaeologists' conclusions may be found in their article for Nature magazine, which can be downloaded in full (sadly, for a fee) here. For those like me who are unwilling to purchase the Nature article for whatever reason, an informal news article about the find that goes into a bit more detail than the BBC article may be found on the Nature Magazine website, here

As these articles observe, the ability to preserve milk for food purposes in the form of cheese was of inestimable value before the invention of technologies that permit easy refrigeration of food stuffs. Still, it gives one pause to reflect upon how far we have--or have not?--come from that Neolithic cheese strainer to being able to purchase a plastic tub of cheese from a local supermarket.

EDIT: (12/21/2012) Corrected text above to reflect additional information obtained from a closer reading of the above-cited articles and an AP article about the find (spotted by my friend, John Desmond).  The fragments are supposedly from 34 different pots; it's not clear how that was determined.  More interestingly, the AP article claims that experts believe that cheese was being made in what is now Turkey up to 2,000 years later, but have yet to find definitive evidence of same.

EDIT: (1/13/2013) I've found another on-line article about the find here. This article states that Peter Bogucki has believed since the mid-1980s that the perforated pottery of Poland was used in cheesemaking, and he even published an article to that effect in 1984, but he could not obtain general acceptance for the theory because of his lack of hard evidence that the pottery was used for that purpose. Now he has his evidence, and his vindication.

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