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Dirty Dishes: Fatty residues on pottery fragments point to 6000 B.C. cheese-making

This pottery sherd was part of an ancient strainer used by prehistoric humans to separate cheese curds from whey. Credit: Nature.

Nearly eight thousand years ago in an area that is now called Poland, a prehistoric person skipped dish-duty.

Thanks to this delinquency, researchers in Poland and the UK led by Richard Evershed have been able to analyze the dirty residues on these dishes.

Today the scientists report in Nature

that the fatty acid leftovers are Northern Europe’s earliest evidence for cheese-making.

And tomorrow, teenagers everywhere will begin arguing that dirty dishes buried under beds are a gift to future archeologists.

But seriously, archeologists are interested in the onset of cheese-making for several reasons.

First, because cheese-making permitted humans to gain protein nutrients from domesticated livestock year-round, and without killing the valuable animals.

Second, cheese has less lactose than straight milk. So the development of cheese-making may have been a way for lactose-intolerant prehistoric humans in Northern Europe to gain nutrients from something that would otherwise make them extremely sick.

Finally, “the production of cheese is a technically complex process,” note the authors. Thus the knowhow shows some advanced food science skills. To make cheese you first have to coagulate milk with acid or enzymes, so that you get semi-solid cheese curds. Then you have to separate the curds for the liquid whey.

The pottery fragments analyzed in this study were pierced with holes, and were liked used as a sieve to separate the curds from whey. Other research by the same scientists on vessels from Anatolia, in Turkey, have pointed to cheese-making as far back as the seventh millennium, older than the Northern Europeans.

This not the only time that researchers have discovered interesting residues on ancient vessels. In January, scientists at the Library of Congress found traces of nicotine at the bottom of a 700 A.D. Mayan pot, the first physical evidence of tobacco use by this civilization.

And in 2010, traces of body paint pigments were found in 50,000-year-old shells on the Iberian Peninsula, evidence that even Neanderthals liked to pretty themselves up before a night out on the town.

1 Comment

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  • Dec 13th 201219:12
    by Carmen Drahl


    I wonder- do different animals’ milks have slightly different isotope ratios? Is it possible to parse what animals the ancient cheese came from? (Maybe they even did this– I haven’t read the paper).

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