One particular legend dominates when it comes to discussing the origins of cheese. Year ago, around 7000 BCE, a traveling nomad carried milk stored in the stomach of an animal (the stomach acting as an ancient thermos or travel mug). The rennet in the animal stomach combined with the heat and separated his milk into curds and whey. When he stopped to enjoy his milk, he discovered he couldn’t drink it. So he ate it instead, happily risking his health to discover the first cheese.
There’s just one problem with this version of the story. Paul Kindstedt, professor at the University of Vermont (and author of one of our favorites histories of our favorite food, Cheese and Culture), explains why to Gastropod on their latest podcast. Nomads living in the Middle East 9,000 years ago wouldn’t have been carrying milk around to enjoy as a snack. In fact, they were all lactose intolerant. The nomad of legend couldn’t drink milk without some nasty repercussions.
My grandmother always said you should never let facts get in the way of a good story, and as far as legends go, the popular one is pretty good. But in this case, the facts also make for a good story. So grandma will have to forgive me for busting this myth. If not from a wandering traveler, where did cheese really come from?
Go back to about 7000–6500 BCE. The end of the last major ice age brought warmer temperatures, allowing agriculture to begin in earnest. Local wildlife, like goats and sheep, congregated around these new farms to snack on the crops. While the adults were lactose intolerant, babies still needed a steady supply of milk before they were weaned. People caught and domesticated the grazing wildlife and started the practice of dairying to help feed their babies. For about a thousand years, only young children benefited from this practice.
Then, disaster struck. Farmers depleted the soil and cut down too many of the trees. Deforestation and erosion led to natural disasters. Crops failed. People were forced to recalibrate—they could no longer rely on booming crops, but they still had their sheep and goats. These animals can survive on limited vegetation, so they were easy to keep alive.
Around the time of this agricultural upheaval, ancient people also invented pottery to store all the milk they collected. I never would have suspected that all the pottery shards I’ve seen in museums over the years could have helped create cheese, but there it is.
Pottery stored the increased amounts of milk, but because the climate was so warm, it coagulated in a matter of hours. Some adult, ignoring the risks, must have tried the separated curd and realized it was easier to stomach than milk. The lactose content of milk reduces by about 80 percent through coagulation, making cheese much easier on the stomachs of the lactose intolerant adults. All of a sudden dairy became practical for the population at large. The cheese boom began.
As children were introduced to cheese at a young age, more of them could stomach dairy into adulthood. They passed their abilities to younger generations until the actual DNA landscape of people changed. That’s right: Ancient people loved cheese so much, it changed our DNA. How cool is that?
Kindstedt has more to offer to Gastropod as they discuss the importance of cheese in ancient civilizations. You can also hear a discussion of how microbes affect cheese and a whole lot more packed into this hour long episode.