December 13, 2012|Rosie Mestel

The shards of old pottery are poked with little holes, remnants of vessels that would have looked a lot like colanders. Now scientists have determined that the fragments -- more than 7,000 years old -- are most likely from ancient cheese-making implements, used for separating curds from whey.

Collected from sites along a river in present-day Poland, the pottery pieces are the oldest direct evidence for cheese-making anywhere in the world, the researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature. They help paint a picture of the early beginnings of dairying, an agricultural leap that had profound effects on the cultural history of humankind.

With the rise of cheese-making, people of the late Neolithic would have had a rich source of nourishment they could exploit -- and store -- at a time when most adults would not be able to tolerate lactose, said study coauthor Peter Bogucki, an archaeologist at Princeton University. When curds and whey are separated, the vast majority of the lactose remains in whey, making cheese far more gentle on the gut than is milk.

Bogucki had noticed the hole-studded pottery shards among the more plentiful relics of ancient storage pots during 35 years of excavation work with colleagues in Poland. From bones and other materials, the archaeologists also knew that these early farmers herded cattle in addition to growing crops.

The team did not dwell on the sieve remnants much. Then, in the early 1980s, Bogucki and his wife stopped to visit a friend in Vermont. In the home were 19th century ceramic vessels pierced with holes -- and when asked about them, the friend explained they had been used to make cheese.

"It set off a few bells ringing," Bogucki said.
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Humans have been cutting the cheese much longer than we thought. I wonder when the first pizza delivery was made?