As long as 7,000 years ago, cheese was being made in northern Europe -- albeit in a simple and functional form, a new study reports.
Researchers analyzed the fatty acids in pottery shards excavated from archaeological sites in Poland and found that dairy had been processed in the pottery.
"The analysis doesn't tell us whether the cheese was from sheep or goat or cattle," said Mélanie Salque, a chemist at the University of Bristol in England and one of the study's authors. "But on the site more than 90 percent of the bones were cattle bones, so cattle is very likely." She and her colleagues report their findings in the journal Nature.
The pottery shards are fragments of sieves that resemble modern cheese-strainers, Dr. Salque said.
The prehistoric cheese makers were probably making the simplest of cheeses by curdling milk with an acidic substance, and then separating the curds from the whey through the sieve.
Why make cheese? A possible explanation has to do with extending milk's "use-by" date. Turning milk into cheese makes it last longer and also makes it easier to transport. A second reason was that people of the time were largely lactose intolerant. "Making cheese could allow them to reduce the lactose content of the milk," Dr. Salque said.
The pottery was made by some of the first farmers of central Europe, who belonged to the central European Linear Pottery culture. It was excavated decades ago, but researchers were unable to establish what it was used for. "People thought they could be flame covers, or used to hold hot coals and keep food warm, or to strain honey or make beer," Dr. Salque said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.