Thursday, April 23, 2015

How humanity discovered cheese?

Mother Jones has an interesting article about how humans might first have learned about the nutritional value of cheese.

Kindstedt, author of the book Cheese and Culture, explained that about a thousand years before traces of cheese-making show up in the archaeological record, humans began growing crops ... for the first thousand years, toddlers and babies were the only ones consuming the milk. Human adults were uniformly lactose-intolerant, says Kindstedt. What's more, he told us that "we know from some exciting archaeo-genetic and genomic modeling that the capacity to tolerate lactose into adulthood didn't develop until about 5500 B.C."—which is at least a thousand years after the development of cheese.

... we now know that the real dawn of cheese came about 8,500 years ago, with two simultaneous developments in human history. First, by then, over-intensive agricultural practices had depleted the soil, leading to the first human-created environmental disaster. As a result, Neolithic humans began herding goats and sheep more intensely, as those animals could survive on marginal lands unfit for crops. And secondly, humans invented pottery: the original practical milk-collection containers.

In the warm environment of the Fertile Crescent region, Kinstedt explained, any milk not used immediately and instead left to stand in those newly invented containers "would have very quickly, in a matter of hours, coagulated [due to the heat and the natural lactic acid bacteria in the milk]. And at some point, probably some adventurous adult tried some of the solid material and found that they could tolerate it a lot more of it than they could milk." That's because about 80 percent of the lactose drains off with the whey, leaving a digestible and, likely, rather delicious fresh cheese.

With the discovery of cheese, suddenly those early humans could add dairy to their diets. Cheese made an entirely new source of nutrients and calories available for adults, and, as a result, dairying took off in a major way. What this meant, says Kindstedt, is that "children and newborns would be exposed to milk frequently, which ultimately through random mutations selected for children who could tolerate lactose later into adulthood."

There's more at the link.

It's fascinating to study the archaeological record like that and work out how a human population that was almost uniformly lactose-intolerant made the switch to become lactose-tolerant, leading to the consumption of gallons of milk per person in today's world (for those who can afford it).  I learned a lot from this article, and I'm going to read the book to learn more.



Able said...

Colour me sceptical in part (that and being cynical is what I've become more and more adept at over the decades – practice makes perfect) but how do we know that 'every Neolithic human was lactose intolerant' or intolerant to the same extent? We don't even know now, about modern humans who can be prodded, poked and experimented on just why (or even if for most claiming to be, since it and other ailments and allergies have become 'fashionable') some are lactose intolerant.

I assume it is from both some scant archaeological material and a 'calculation/theory' (both unproven and unprovable) from the current genome. Almost all children except with the rarest of anomalies like CLT are tolerant. I believe >60% of adults have a reduced tolerance with decreasing expression of the LCT gene mediated by MCM6 so how exactly do they know that this wasn't the case 8500 years ago too? I believe one piece of research stating this is based on extracting DNA from 13 skulls, just how representative or even accurate would that be? Looking at the variation of LI amongst current varied (Asian/African/Finnish vs the rest of Europeans) populations any observations of our neolithic ancestors shows a tiny (statistically irrelevant difference), no?

Still I find the theory that pottery and lactic acid bacteria rather than the previously theorised 'carrying milk around in a stomach bladder and rennet' caused its 'invention' … interesting.

Speaking as a cheeseaholic I just think whichever brave soul tried it first deserves to be sat at gods right hand (next to whoever thought to try frying thin slices of pig, putting it between two slices of baked ground up grass and adding squashed fruit pulp to it. The lady, obviously, who insisted that leaves be added should be burned in effigy daily – just sayin').

Anonymous said...

Sigh. The cracking sound you hear is my book-budget going to pieces. Darn you. :)