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Neolithic Cheese

October 15, 2018

Like many others, I enjoyed watching Family Matters on television during the last decade of the 20th century. The most memorable character from that television series was Steve Urkel, played by the versatile actor, Jaleel White (b. November 27, 1976). Urkel was the archetypal nerd, a serious student and an inventor. His inventions were often strange, and they usually failed. He did invent a time machine, a plot device that's proven useful in many television shows, such as Family Guy.

One thing that I remember about Urkel that's missing from his Wikipedia page is his love of cheese. There are so many types of cheese that everyone should find a favorite. I've always enjoyed sharp cheddar, and I'm happy that there are pills to prevent cholesterol side-effects from eating too much cheese. Although there are supposed problems with the nutritional value of milk, the starting ingredient for making cheese, milk was once marketed as Nature's perfect food. Here's the typical composition of cow's milk:[1]
• Water: 87.3%
• Milk fat: 3.9%
• Proteins: 3.25% (Casein, 2.6%)
• Carbohydrates: 4.6% (Lactose)
• Minerals: 0.65% (Chlorides, phosphates, citrates, and carbonates of potassium, calcium, and magnesium)
• Organic acids: 0.18% (Citric, lactic, formic, acetic, and oxalic)
• Enzymes: Trace (Peroxidase, catalase, phosphatase, and lipase)
• Vitamins: Trace (Vitamin-A, Vitamin-C, Vitamin-D, B1/thiamine, and B2/riboflavin)

Floris van Dyck, Still-Life with Fruit, Nuts and Cheese, 1613.

Cheese takes a central role in this "Still-Life with Fruit, Nuts and Cheese," a 1613 oil on panel painting by Floris van Dyck (c.1575-1651). (Current location, the Frans Hals Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Some cheese is very easy to make. Farmer cheese is simply made by adding rennet and bacterial starter to coagulate milk. The solid part of the coagulate, the curd, are separated from the liquid whey, and the curds are pressed to remove most of the moisture to make a dry and crumbly cheese. My wife uses a similar method to make mozzarella using warmed milk, and there are many recipes for this process online. As we all know, Little Miss Muffet was very fond of curds and whey, also known as cottage cheese, which is also easy to make at home.

Little Miss Muffet painting by John Everett Millais.

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

(A painting by John Everett Millais (1829–1896), via Wikimedia Commons.)

Not every sparkling white wine can be called Champagne in the European Union, but only those from a certain region in France about 100 miles east of Paris. This is because of a law known as Appellation d'origine contrôlée. Likewise, certain cheeses have this type of trademark status derived from another law, the protected designation of origin (PDO). This is better known by its Italian designation, Denominazione di origine controllata. This law protects the quality of the cheese by stating rules for its production.

The most important PDO designation for cheese is for Feta, a brined cheese that's decidedly easy to imitate. Some Italian cheeses with PDO protection are Gorgonzola, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Pecorino Romano. These cheeses are more expensive than their generic versions, and there are some people who actually prefer the generic versions over the originals. There are some entertaining YouTube videos that explain cheese quality factors and prices.[2-3]

Since it's possible to keep cheese from spoiling for much longer than the milk from which it is made, cheesemaking has been an important part of human culture for a very long time. There is evidence for cheesemaking in the Bronze Age, about 5,000 years ago. A recent study, published as an open access paper in PLOS, has given evidence for cheesemaking in the Neolithic, about 7,000 years ago.[4-5] The authors are from Pennsylvania State University (University Park, Pennsylvania), Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh, United Kingdom), the Muzej grada Ŝibenika (Ŝibenik, Croatia), and the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, New York).[4]

Cheese was important to human expansion across Europe, and cheese has health benefits that decrease infant mortality. While genetic studies have shown that many early humans were lactose intolerant, this is less of a problem among young children, who could consume this relatively pathogen-free and nutritious food and enhance their survival to adulthood.[4] Yogurt and cheese have decreased lactose content, and this food source would have enabled expansion of populations to northern latitudes where cattle-rearing for milk production would supplement agriculture.[4-5]

The archaeological site of Pokrovnik

The archaeological site of Pokrovnik, one of two sites that revealed cheese production 7,000 years ago.

(Photo by Andrew M.T. Moore.)

Evidence for this production of cheese in the Neolithic comes from the detection of fatty acids on potsherds from two Neolithic villages on the Dalmatian coast, east of the Adriatic Sea.[5] These villages, Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, were occupied between 6000 and 4800 BCE, and analysis of potsherds showed evidence for meat, fish, and milk.[5] Interestingly, specific pottery types were used for different foods, cheese residue being most common on rhyta and sieves.[5] Radiocarbon dating was by analysis of stable carbon isotopes of the lipid residue.[4] This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society, among other sources.[5]

Examples of pottery types from the Dalmatian Neolithic.

Examples of pottery types from the Dalmatian Neolithic. (From a photo by McClure et al., 2018.)


  1. Composition of Milk, Cornell University Dairy Extension (PDF File).
  2. Cheese Expert Guesses More Cheap vs Expensive Cheeses, Epicurious YouTube Video, November 20, 2017.
  3. Cheese Expert Guesses More Cheap vs Expensive Cheeses, Epicurious YouTube Video, July 24, 2018.
  4. Sarah B. McClure, Clayton Magill, Emil Podrug, Andrew M. T. Moore, Thomas K. Harper, Brendan J. Culleton, Douglas J. Kennett, and Katherine H. Freeman, "Fatty acid specific δ13C values reveal earliest Mediterranean cheese production 7,200 years ago," PLoS ONE, vol. 13, no. 9 (September 5, 2018), Article no. e0202807, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0202807. This is an open access paper with a PDF file here.
  5. Earliest Mediterranean cheese production revealed by pottery over 7,000 years old, PLOS Press Release, September 5, 2018.

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