RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now let's go back in time. Before we had the wheel, we had the cheese. Made by Neolithic farmers in what is now Poland at least 7,000 years ago. As NPR's Adam Cole tells us, the invention helped these early dairymen settle down on the farm.
ADAM COLE, BYLINE: It turns out, it's not that hard to make cheese. You just take some fresh milk, warm it up a bit. Add something acidic to curdle it. And then, once it has cooled, you drain off the whey - that liquid part - and you're left with cheese. But when did we figure out how to do this?
Well, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature, at least 7,000 years ago - and the process hasn't changed much since.
MELANIE SALQUE: Yeah, that's the amazing thing.
COLE: Melanie Salque is the paper's lead author and a chemist at Bristol University in England. She says some of the first clues of Neolithic cheese-making were a bunch of strange clay vessels unearthed by archeologists in the 1970s.
SALQUE: They were very peculiar because they had very small holes in them.
PETER BOGUCKI: So they couldn't possibly be used for holding a liquid.
COLE: That's Peter Bogucki - a Princeton archeologist who was the one who dug up these pots in the first place. Like the rest of his colleagues, Bogucki was baffled. Some people thought the sieves might have been used to hold hot coals, or strain honey, or prepare beer. But Bogucki concocted a different theory. He noticed a strange-looking colander on a shelf at a friend's house and asked her what it was used for.
BOGUCKI: And she said, well, for cheese-making, of course.
COLE: Of course. But for decades there was no way to prove his pots were ancient cheese strainers. New techniques have finally allowed researchers to analyze residue that had seeped into the clay. They found that its chemical signature matched cow milk. And it's hard to think of a reason milk would be in these leaky pots unless those early farmer were making cheese.
That cheese, that simple cheese, was an important step in the development of modern civilization. For people who were just beginning to leave hunting behind, people who were just beginning to rely on crops that often failed, dairy products had the potential to get them the nutrition they needed.
MARK THOMAS: Milk and milk products is a super food. I mean, it's probably the ultimate super food.
COLE: Mark Thomas is an a evolutionary geneticist at University College London who has studied the DNA of these early cheese makers. But he says Neolithic Europeans had a problem - like most modern humans, they were lactose intolerant.
THOMAS: Few or none of the people at that time would have been able to digest the sugar in milk as adults.
COLE: But the process of making cheese removes a lot of this sugar - the lactose. It would have been dissolved in the whey and drained off by those ancient cheese strainers. So the farmers could get their daily dose of dairy without the intestinal problems.
THOMAS: Milk gave us some extra edge in terms of survival.
COLE: And that edge meant we had more time and energy to improve farming methods, invent new tools, develop cooking techniques, and eventually perfect the cheese blintz. Adam Cole, NPR News.