Better with Age: Cheese That Dates Back to 5000 BC

By Wesley Fenlon

Cheese is old. We already knew that, but it turns out ancient civilizations discovered the cheesemaking process thousands of years earlier than previously known.

There are things in this world it's impossible to live without. Not smartphones or tablets or the Internet, as much as those have changed our lives--most of us can easily remember a time when they didn't exist, or were hardly mainstays of daily life. These are things like the wheel and fire and paper. And cheese. Imagine a world...completely devoid of cheese.

It's horrifying, isn't it? Such a world actually existed once, but new research published in Nature shows that cheese has actually been around far, far longer than we thought. The creation of cheese may now date back to around 5000 BC, which makes our favorite dairy product about 7000 years old. Which is, well, really old. Good old paper is a whippersnapper by comparison: the Chinese first began experimenting with paper only a hundred or so BC.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Ewan-M via Creative Commons.

Why is it a big deal that cheese is thousands upon thousands of years old? Mostly because of the evidence that led to this new revelation. Until recently, archeologists based their knowledge of ancient cheesemaking on Egyptian tombs a mere 4000 years old. The new discovery nearly doubles the length of time we believe people have been making cheese.

The new discovery nearly doubles the length of time we believe people have been making cheese.

"The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers," the study explains.

Researchers were tipped off by the small holes in shards of pottery unearthed from Polish archeological sites. They noted that the pierced shards, when cobbled together, would look an awful lot like modern-day cheese strainers. They followed a common practice, chemically testing the holes for organic residue. In the past, this has proven a connection between ceramics and dairy in Europe and northern Africa, and it worked again in this case.

The researchers discovered "abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers, [which] provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey."

It's the earliest direct evidence to the creation of cheese; as noteworthy as Egyptian iconography and Sumerian tablets were in the history of cheese, neither provided the actual tools used to make wonderful edible dairy. As Smithsonian Mag reports, the discovery also tells us a great deal about ancient cultures, and why they began to domesticate animals thousands of years ago. Humans weren't easily able to digest lactose at the time, which makes milk pretty worthless. So why didn't we just kill them?

Because cheese contains far less lactose, and is thus much easier to digest. If ancient cultures were able to create cheese, which was both easier to preserve and digest than dairy, it makes sense that they would keep cows and goats around instead of slaughtering them for meat and hides.

It took thousands more years for cheeses to develop in complexity and variety into the goudas and cheddars and mozzarellas and bries we know and love--the report indicates that cheese was more liquidy, and compared Egypt's cheeses to modern cottage cheese. The cheese probably existed more for nutrition than flavor. Thankfully, wine has been around for something like 9000 years, so a wine-and-cheese pairing was easily possible even seven millennia ago.