December 2012, Week 3


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Mon, 17 Dec 2012 00:38:25 -0500
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New Discovery of 7000-Year-Old Cheese Puts Your Trader 
Joe's Aged Gouda to Shame
Joseph Stromberg
Smithsonian Magazine
December 12, 2012

New evidence indicates cheese was invented as far back
as 5000 BCE, although ancient cheeses wouldn't have been
as varied or refined as the cheeses we have today. 

Archaeologists have long known that cheese is an ancient
human invention. Wall murals in Egyptian tombs from 2000
BCE depict cheesemaking, and Sumerian tablets written in
cuneiform text seem to describe cheese as well. Our
distant ancestors, it seems clear, knew about the wonder
that is cheese.

Today, though, cheese lovers have cause to celebrate:
New evidence indicates that the invention of the utterly
delicious and at times stinky product actually came
thousands of years earlier. As described in a paper
published today in Nature, chemical analysis of
prehistoric pottery unearthed from sites in Poland shows
that cheesemaking was invented way farther back than
originally believed-roughly 7000 years ago.

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol,
Princeton and a group of Polish universities came to the
finding by examining an unusual group of artifacts from
the Polish sites: clay shards that were pierced with a
series of small holes. Struck by their resemblance to in
modern-day cheese strainers, they chemically tested the
material around the holes, and were vindicated to find
ancient traces of the kinds of lipids and fatty acids
found in dairy products. These ceramics are attributed
to what archaeologists call the Linear Pottery culture,
and are dated to 5200 to 4900 BCE.

Researchers tested these perforated ceramic fragments
and found ancient dairy residues, indicating they were
used as cheese strainers. Image via Salque et. al.

"The presence of milk residues in sieves, which look
like modern cheese-strainers, constitutes the earliest
direct evidence for cheesemaking," said lead author
Mélanie Salque of the University of Bristol in a
statement. "So far, early evidence for cheesemaking were
mostly iconographic, that is to say murals showing milk
processing, which dates to several millennia later than
the cheese strainers."

Although different cheeses are made by a variety of
processes, nearly all start with the separation of milk
into liquid whey and solid curds. This is typically
accomplished by adding bacteria to the milk, along with
rennet (a mix of enzymes produced in animal stomachs),
then straining out the liquid from the newly-coagulated
curds. These perforated pots, then, seem like they were
used to strain out the solids.

The researchers also analyzed other pottery fragments
from the site. Several unperforated bowls also had
traces of dairy residues, indicating they might have
been used to store the curds or whey after separation.
They also found remnants of fats from cow carcasses in
some of the ceramics, along with beeswax in others,
suggesting they were used to cook meat and sealed to
store water, respectively. Apart from being capable of
making a complex food product like cheese, it seems that
these ancient people also created different types of
specialized ceramics for different purposes.

The authors of the paper believe this ancient
cheesemaking goes a long way in explaining a mystery:
why humans bothered to domesticate cows, goats and sheep
thousands of years ago, rather than eating their wild
ancestors, even though genetic evidence indicates that
we hadn't yet evolved the ability to digest lactose, and
thus couldn't drink milk. Since cheese is so much lower
in lactose than milk, they say, figuring out how to make
it would have provided a means for unlocking milk's
nutritional content, and gave prehistoric humans
incentive to raise these animals over a long period of
time, instead of slaughtering them for their meat
immediately. Making cheese also gave these people the
ability to preserve the nutritional content, since milk
spoils much more quickly.

That leaves one more pressing question-what did this
ancient cheese actually taste like? Without abundant
access to salt or knowledge of the refined heating and
ripening processes that are necessary for the variety of
cheese we have today, it's likely that the first cheeses
were pretty bland and liquidy. Like ancient Egyptian
cheeses, these were probably comparable in texture and
taste to cottage cheese, Salque and colleagues noted.


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