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Extra mature cheese?

As ingenuity goes – we humans are unbearably smug. As a species, the notion that we can ‘out-invent’ any other inhabitants of the rock famous, among other things, for being third from the Sun seems utterly inherent. A given. Moreover, we think that it is specifically modern humans that have exclusive bragging rights to technological advancement.

Yet the trimmings of modernity may be spread more thinly over the tumultuous epoch of Homo Sapiens Sapiens than is at first obvious.  Why this outburst of pseudointellectual profundity from the Science Lite desk? Well you see – it’s all down to some cheese.

An after dinner delight, lunchbox favourite or unlikely icing ingredient – it has many guises, yet this pungent wonder may also have something else up its sleeve – antiquity. Think what you will of our modern uses of cheese – few people imagine it as being a prehistoric storage device.  Yet new evidence from a Bristol based chemist suggests just that.

After archaeologists working at ancient cattle-rearing sites in what is now Poland found pieces of ceramic vessels riddled with holes – they reasoned they were reminiscent of cheese strainers. But it was science that swooped to provide the meaty facts on the bare bones of hypothesis. Mélanie Salque, a chemist at the University of Bristol used gas chromatography and carbon-isotope ratios to analyse molecules preserved in the pores of the ancient clay, and confirmed that they came from milk fats. This makes cheese at least 7,500 years old.

Now, the production of cheese is even more impressive given the fact that in all likelihood it was done so that the cattle milk – which without refrigeration would have perished in a very short time –   could be stored for long periods of time. Clever ancient humans – very clever.

Yet their cunning ran deeper even than this. Our current love of dairy has not always been thus – indeed early humans were actually unable to digest lactose after childhood – so why did they bother with diary at all then?

“Processing milk into cheese allows the lactose content of milk to be reduced. And genetic and computer simulations have shown that at that time, people were largely lactose intolerant,” explains Ms Salque.

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And so in a true ‘two birds with one stone’ moment our ancestors realised that if they made cheese the product would not only last a long time, but also actually become digestible.

This means that in a period of time where humans are often pictured as club-wielding barbarians, they actually had the cerebral acuity to isolate a problem and develop the technology to overcome that problem. They produced something storable from something perishable whilst at the same time opening up a previously inedible food source to consumption. Very, very clever.

So, humbled by the burgeoning biotechnological acumen (…after all we are talking about fermentation here) of our forebears we are off to make some cheese on toast and revel in the ancient lineage of this time honored snack.

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