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A brie(f) history of cheese - Paul S. Kindstedt


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Before empires and royalty, before pottery and writing, before metal tools and weapons – there was cheese. As early as 8000 BCE, Neolithic farmers began a legacy of cheesemaking almost as old as civilization. Today, the world produces roughly 22 billion kilograms of cheese a year, shipped and consumed around the globe. Paul Kindstedt shares the history of one of our oldest and most beloved foods.

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Recent advances in archaeoforensic sciences reveal that cheese-making began shortly after the origin of agriculture itself. Agriculture flourished during the 10th millennium BCE near the Fertile Crescent by the border of modern Iraq and Turkey. Archaeologists and anthropologists have pinpointed the origin of dairying (harvesting milk for human consumption) by analyzing bones and dental remains from the animals left behind by Neolithic farming communities. From these artifacts, it is possible to determine the species of animals that were herded by the community, as well as their age and sex at the time they were slaughtered. This information, in turn, can be used to infer whether the animals were raised for meat and animal skins or for milk. Archaeoforensic techniques like these indicate that Neolithic peoples in the Fertile Crescent began raising goats and sheep for milk production by the end of the 9th millennium BCE.

This raises an interesting question, however, because archaeogenetic studies indicate that Neolithic humans were universally lactose intolerant at the time that they began milking goats and sheep. So why were they harvesting milk? One reason was to use animal milk as a supplement to mother’s milk before young children were weaned. A likely second reason was to transform milk into cheese; this process enabled the adult population to access most of the vital nutrients in milk in a form that they could digest. Because of these survival advantages, Neolithic peoples meticulously conserved their dairying and cheese-making wherever they migrated.

The best indication of ancient cheese-making lies in pottery fragments that migrating peoples left behind as they moved to new locations. Neolithic peoples sometimes stored cheese and butter in pottery vessels, which left embedded residues of milkfat in the pottery. Even after thousands of years, these ancient milkfat residues can be identified by sophisticated archaeochemical techniques. By following the pottery trail, it is possible to reconstruct the movement of Neolithic cheesemakers out of the Fertile Crescent into northwest Turkey, and then westwards to Europe, where cheese-making evolved into countless new varieties, and eastwards to the Eurasian steppes. With respect to Africa, it is still unclear whether cheese-making arrived from the Fertile Crescent or developed independently there.

How did cheese evolve into so many diverse varieties? The answer partly lies in the discovery of rennet, which made it possible for cheesemakers to manipulate the chemistry and microbiology of cheese in ways that produced completely new varieties. Furthermore, as cheesemakers migrated to new regions, they were confronted with new environmental constraints that inspired the development of new cheese-making practices and equipment and new
techniques for ripening cheese.

For example, the fluctuating availability of salt, changes in local temperature and humidity, topography of the landscape, lushness or sparseness of the local pastureland, and proximity to natural microclimates—including underground caves for aging cheese—all profoundly shaped local cheese-making practices. Moreover, seasonal considerations, such as whether cheese was consumed right away in temperate climates or stored for many months in preparation for long harsh winters, led to different cheese-making strategies.

Finally, as cultural and economic systems became more sophisticated, trade opportunities led the evolution new cheese varieties. Cheeses like Gruyère, Cheshire, and gouda were tailored to accommodate the maritime shipping requirements of affluent markets in distant cities. As a result, the discovery of rennet, in combination with the wide array of ecological, cultural and economic conditions that confronted cheesemakers living in different places, gave birth to a plethora of distinctly different cheeses. A more complete discussion of cheese history can be found in Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Paul S. Kindstedt
  • Director Charlotte Cambon
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Animator Charlotte Cambon
  • Designer Charlotte Cambon
  • Storyboard Artist Charlotte Cambon
  • Character Designer Charlotte Cambon
  • Sound Designer Jarrett Farkas
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Francisco Diez

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