The Surprising Role Cheese Played In Human Evolution

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The Surprising Role Cheese Played In Human Evolution
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A solid white mass found in a broken jar in an Ancient Egyptian tomb has turned out to be the world’s oldest example of solid cheese.

Probably made mostly from sheep or goats milk, the cheese was found several years ago by archaeologists in the ancient tomb of Ptahmes, who was a high-ranking Egyptian official. The substance was identified after the archaeology team carried out biomolecular identification of its proteins.

This 3,200-year-old find is exciting because it shows that the Ancient Egyptian’s shared our love of cheese – to the extent it was given as a funerary offering. But not only that, it also fits into archaeology’s growing understanding of the importance of dairy to the development of the human diet in Europe.

Dairy in diets

About two-thirds of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. So although dairy products are a daily part of the diet for many living in Europe, Northern India and North America, drinking milk in adulthood was only possible from the Bronze Age, over the last 4,500 years.

For most of human history, adults lost the ability to consume milk after infancy – and the same is true of people who are lactose intolerant today. After weaning, people with lactose intolerance can no longer produce the enzyme lactase. This is necessary to break down the lactose sugars in fresh milk into compounds that can be easily digested. People with lactose intolerance experience unpleasant symptoms if they consume dairy products such as bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea.

Ancient DNA analysis on human skeletons from prehistoric Europe places the earliest appearance of the gene lactase gene (LCT) – which keeps adults producing lactase – to 2,500BC. But there is plenty of evidence from the Neolithic period (around 6,000-2,500BC in Europe) that milk was being consumed.

This is not totally surprising though, as the Neolithic marks the start of farming in most regions of Europe – and the first time humans lived closely alongside animals. And although they were unable to digest milk, we know that Neolithic populations were processing milk into substances they could consume.

Archaeological evidence

Using a technique called “lipid analysis”, sherds of ancient pottery can be analysed and fats absorbed into the clay identified. This then allows archaeologists to find out what was cooked or processed inside them.

Although it is not yet possible to identify the species of animal, dairy fats can be distinguished. It is also challenging to determine what techniques were being used to make dairy products safe to consume, with many potential options. Fermenting milk, for example, breaks down the lactose sugar into lactic acid. Cheese is low in lactose because it involves separating curd (from which cheese is made) from whey, in which the majority of the lactose sugars remain.

Clay sieves from Poland, similar to modern cheese sieves, have been found to have dairy lipids preserved in the pores of clay, suggesting that they were being used to separate curds from the whey. Whether the curds were then consumed or attempts made to preserve them by pressing into a harder cheese is unknown. Fermentation of milk was also possible to our ancestors, but harder to explore with the techniques currently available to archaeology.

Early cheese making

While the techniques from bioarchaeology have provided this fantastic detail on Neolithic diets, where the science stops, experimental archaeology can explore what was possible.

We have been making cheese using the utensils, plants and techniques available to Neolithic farmers. The aim of the experiments is not to faithfully recreate early cheeses, but to begin to capture some of the decisions available to early cheese makers – and the experiments have thrown up some interesting results.

By using these ancient techniques, we have discovered that a wealth of different means of curdling the milk would have been possible, each producing different forms, tastes and amounts of cheese.

And such specialist knowledge may have been akin to the spread of bronze smelting at the end of the Neolithic. Dairy may have had a special status among foodstuffs. For example, at the major late Neolithic feasting site of Durrington Walls, not far from and contemporary with Stonehenge, dairy residues were found in a particular kind of pottery vessel and concentrated in the area around a timber circle – a form of Late Neolithic monument.

From the Bronze Age, however, lactase persistence offered an advantage to some people who were able to pass this on to their offspring. It also seems that this advantage was not solely because of increased calorie and nutrient intake alone – but because of the special status dairy foods may have had. The development of this biological adaption to fresh milk took place after humans had already found ways to safely include dairy products in the diet.

This shows that humans are not only able to manipulate their food to make it edible, but that what we consume can also lead to new adaptations in our biology.The Conversation

About The Author

Penny Bickle, Lecturer in Archaeology, University of York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Books by this Author

The First Farmers of Central Europe: Diversity in LBK Lifeways (Cardiff Studies in Archaeology)

dietAuthor: Penny Bickle
Binding: Kindle Edition
Format: Kindle eBook
Creator(s):
  • Penny Bickle
  • Alasdair Whittle

Studio: Oxbow Books
Label: Oxbow Books
Publisher: Oxbow Books
Manufacturer: Oxbow Books

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Editorial Review: From about 5500 cal BC to soon after 5000 cal BC, the lifeways of the first farmers of central Europe, the LBK culture (Linearbandkeramik), are seen in distinctive practices of longhouse use, settlement forms, landscape choice, subsistence, material culture and mortuary rites. Within the five or more centuries of LBK existence a dynamic sequence of changes can be seen in, for instance, the expansion and increasing density of settlement, progressive regionalisation in pottery decoration, and at the end some signs of stress or even localised crisis. Although showing many features in common across its very broad distribution, however, the LBK phenomenon was not everywhere the same, and there is a complicated mixture of uniformity and diversity.

This major study takes a strikingly large regional sample, from northern Hungary westwards along the Danube to Alsace in the upper Rhine valley, and addresses the question of the extent of diversity in the lifeways of developed and late LBK communities, through a wide-ranging study of diet, lifetime mobility, health and physical condition, the presentation of the bodies of the deceased in mortuary ritual. It uses an innovative combination of isotopic (principally carbon, nitrogen and strontium, with some oxygen), osteological and archaeological analysis to address difference and change across the LBK, and to reflect on cultural change in general.




The Neolithic of Europe: Papers in Honour of Alasdair Whittle

dietBinding: Hardcover
Creator(s):
  • Penny Bickle
  • Vicki Cummings
  • Daniela Hofmann
  • Joshua Pollard

Studio: Oxbow Books
Label: Oxbow Books
Publisher: Oxbow Books
Manufacturer: Oxbow Books

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Editorial Review: The Neolithic of Europe comprises eighteen specially commissioned papers on prehistoric archaeology, written by leading international scholars. The coverage is broad, ranging geographically from southeast Europe to Britain and Ireland and chronologically from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, but with a decided focus on the former. Several papers discuss new scientific approaches to key questions in Neolithic research, while others offer interpretive accounts of aspects of the archaeological record. Thematically, the main foci are on Neolithisation; the archaeology of Neolithic daily life, settlements and subsistence; as well as monuments and aspects of world view. A number of contributions highlight the recent impact of techniques such as isotopic analysis and statistically modeled radiocarbon dates on our understanding of mobility, diet, lifestyles, events and historical processes. The volume is presented to celebrate the enormous impact that Alasdair Whittle has had on the study of prehistory, especially the European and British Neolithic, and his rich career in archaeology.




Early Farmers: The View from Archaeology and Science (Proceedings of the British Academy)

dietBinding: Hardcover
Creator(s):
  • Alastair Whittle
  • Penny Bickle

Studio: British Academy
Label: British Academy
Publisher: British Academy
Manufacturer: British Academy

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Editorial Review: The Neolithic period was one of the great transformations in human history with profound, long-term consequences. In Europe, there were no farmers at 7000 cal BC, but very few hunter-gatherers after about 4000 cal BC. Although we understand the broad chronological structure of this shift, many pressing research questions remain. Archaeologists are still vigorously debating the identity of those principally involved in initiating change, the detail of everyday lives during the Neolithic, including basic questions about settlement, the operation of the farming economy and the varied roles of material culture, and the character of large-scale and long-term transformations. They face the task not only of working at different scales, but of integrating ever-expanding amounts of evidence.

As well as the data coming from larger and more intensive excavations, there has been a radical increase in the information released by many kinds of scientific analysis of archaeological remains. These now include, alongside longer established methods of looking at food remains and material, the isotopic analysis of the diet and lifetime movement of people, isotopic analysis of cereal remains for indications of manuring, a DNA analysis of genetic signatures, detailed micromorphological analysis of deposits where people lived, and the close examination of the origin and production of varying materials and artefacts.

The 21 chapters by leading experts in the field demonstrate how the combination of archaeological and scientific evidence now provides opportunities for new and creative understandings of Europe's early farmers. They make an important contribution to the debate over how best to integrate these multiple lines of evidence, scientific and more traditionally archaeological, while keeping in central focus the principal questions that we want to ask of our data.




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