Prehistoric people first made cheese 7,000 years ago

The Paleo diet, or ‘eat like a caveman’ diet, is one of the most popular of 2012. Paleo devotees aim to limit their diet to only the foods that people ate in the Paleolithic area, which ended around 10000 years ago – so no refined sugar, dairy, legumes and grains.

Paleolithic people didn’t eat much dairy since the majority of the adult population was lactose intolerant, but it seems humans have been trying to find ways around that for quite some time. New evidence shows that our prehistoric forebears were making cheese more than 7,000 years ago. It also proves they were more advanced than many have previously assumed.

Despite their lactose intolerance, cheese was more easily digestible and provided a way for these ancient humans to get essential calories, proteins and minerals. It was also a food that they could make without killing animals and was non-perishable and transportable.

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Scientists performed a chemical analysis on fragments from 34 pottery sieves discovered in Poland to determine their purpose. Experts that had found sieves like this previously thought they were used to make cheese, beer or honey but couldn’t be certain.

Evidence now suggests prehistoric humans were figuring out how to make a nice ricotta type cheese to accompany their slabs of meat. There is no definitive test for cheese, especially 7,000-year-old cheese, however, scientists found large amounts of fatty milk residue on the pottery shards. The findings suggest the sieves were specifically used to separate fat-rich curds from liquid whey in soured milk in a quite crude cheese-making process.

The team, led by Ricahrd Evershed of the University of Bristol’s organic geochemistry unit, said the study is the first to provide unequivocal evidence that cattle were being used for milk in northern Europe as long ago as the sixth millennium BC.

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It doesn’t quite date back to the Paleolithic era, which means those following that diet won’t have to change their tune, but for those worried that humans aren’t suited to digesting dairy, it should comfort them to know we have been doing it for quite a while.

Now that we know cheese was being made thousands of years ago, many are starting to wonder what it would have tasted like. Paul Kindstedt, a professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont and author of “Cheese and Culture,” said the earliest cheeses were likely similar to spreadable cheeses like ricotta and fromage frais. He guessed that people either ate them soon after they were made or buried them in pots for months afterwards, saving them for the winter.

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The milk would likely have come from cows. According to Melanie Salque, a postgraduate student at the University of Bristol’s Department of Chemistry, “the study of animal bones…shows that cattle were the most common domesticates at the sites. So cow’s milk cheese.”

“They probably would not be the first choice for a lot of people today,” Mr Kindstedt said, “But I would still love to try it.”

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