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Cheese Played a Surprisingly Important Role in Human Evolution

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Ancient Egyptian cheese helps us understand when and how dairy came into our lives.

Penny Bickle writes: A solid white mass found in a broken jar in an Ancient Egyptian tomb has turned out to be the world’s oldest example of solid cheese.

Probably made mostly from sheep or goats milk, the cheese was found several years ago by archaeologists in the ancient tomb of Ptahmes, who was a high-ranking Egyptian official. The substance was identified after the archaeology team carried out biomolecular identification of its proteins.

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Ancient Egyptian’s shared our love of cheese – shutter stock

This 3,200-year-old find is exciting because it shows that the Ancient Egyptian’s shared our love of cheese—to the extent it was given as a funerary offering. But not only that, it also fits into archaeology’s growing understanding of the importance of dairy to the development of the human diet in Europe.

Dairy in diets

About two-thirds of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. So although dairy products are a daily part of the diet for many living in Europe, Northern India, and North America, drinking milk in adulthood was only possible from the Bronze Age, over the last 4,500 years.

CHEESE IN ANCIENT EGYPT

For most of human history, adults lost the ability to consume milk after infancy—and the same is true of people who are lactose intolerant today. After weaning, people with lactose intolerance can no longer produce the enzyme lactase. This is necessary to break down the lactose sugars in fresh milk into compounds that can be easily digested. People with lactose intolerance experience unpleasant symptoms if they consume dairy products such as bloating, flatulence and diarrhea.

Ancient DNA analysis on human skeletons from prehistoric Europe places the earliest appearance of the gene lactase gene (LCT), which keeps adults producing lactase, to 2,500BC. But there is plenty of evidence from the Neolithic period (around 6,000-2,500BC in Europe) that milk was being consumed.

This is not totally surprising though, as the Neolithic marks the start of farming in most regions of Europe—and the first time humans lived closely alongside animals. And although they were unable to digest milk, we know that Neolithic populations were processing milk into substances they could consume … (read more)

via Popular Science

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