Cheesemaking Is Older Than We Think

Painted Cattle in Libya. Image by Roberto Ceccacci, © The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara, Sapienza University of Rome

by Alifair Skebe

Do we really need cheese in our diet? Recent studies prove that dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butterfat have been not only important but integral to the North African, Near East, and European diets for seven millenia.

New evidence released in Nature: The International Weekly Journal of Science last month reveals that dairying practice is much older than previously imagined. According to a study written by Julie Dunne and organic chemists from the University of Bristol and the work of scientists from various institutions including the Universities of Milan, Pennsylvania, Rome, and Witwatersrand of Johannesburg, South Africa, “unequivocal evidence for extensive processing of dairy products in pottery vessels in Libyan Sahara during the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200-3800 B.C.) [confirm] that milk played an important part in the diet of these prehistoric pastoral people.” The study linked the inception of dairying to the late Holocene period, much earlier than accepted Neolithic period.

By studying the organic, fatty residues on the shards of pottery preserved in the now-arid terrain of the once-humid Saharan climate of Libya, researchers found conclusive evidence to support Northern Africa as the seat of the earliest pastoral communities raising sheep, cattle, and goats. Previous historic evidences of dairying have been limited to rock paintings and engravings which are unable to be accurately dated. A previous article in the Geographical Review (1971) by Frederick Simoons introduced chemical analysis from a vessel taken from the tomb of Hor-asha, the second king to the first Dynasty (3200-2900 B.C.), that identified milkfat residue. The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the vessel indicated “cheese.” This was the then conclusive evidence of dairying in North Africa, far superior to the loose evidences of ancient painted scenes of animal husbandry, milking, pottery, and butter making to more recent historic as well as current tribal dairy practices. Simoons suggests, albeit inconclusively, that dairying originated earlier than the vessel dated, between 5500 and 2000 BC amongst peoples who lived in west and central Sahara and who migrated to southern Egypt and the Sudan and finally to subSaharan Africa, maintaining their cultural traditions.

Consistent with Dunne’s findings, an article published last year in Current Anthropology looks at the island of Cyprus off the coast of Syria to find evidence of dairying dating to the Holocene period. Jean-Denis Vigne and his team found animals introduced to the island from the mainland Near East, specifically that of sheep for dairying and later cattle and goats. Researchers from both studies – the Near East and North Africa – found a concurrence of butchered bones with dairying, and fauna suggestive of high technical skill in animal farming. Cattle were used to carry heavy loads, and meat was eaten from young adult males. According to Vigne, the ancient peoples’ skills included “separating herding of young and adults, particular attention to lambs, and processing of milk and its derivatives.”  Dunne notes that the coinciding cut animal bones and dairy fats in the pottery “suggests full pastoral economy as the cattle were extensively exploited for their secondary products.” Also a “wide range of alkanoid acid values…is unprecedented and points to differing pastoral modes of subsistence” such as seasonal patterns of pasturing and vertical transhumance, or the running of the herd from the lowland to mountain pastures in late Spring to early Fall.

These studies reveal the inception of dairying practices in prehistoric locales, establishing a record of activity heretofore unimagined in anthropological accounts. These “primitive” humans in a relatively short period of time developed complex practices of animal husbandry which were not primitive at all, but show high intelligence and adaptability to shifting environment. Their practices persist in today’s tradition. Moreover, they debunk the misperception that humans were unable to digest dairy in prehistoric times. In point of fact, they may have either had the allele, a form of the gene, for lactase persistence or developed dairying practices such as cheesemaking to allow for dairy consumption, as lactose ages out of most cheeses after 60-90 days. In all, the early pastoral people cultivated dairying and animal farming with precision and intension.


Bogaard, Amy. “’Garden Agriculture’ and the Nature of Early Farming in Europe and the Near East.” World Archaeology. 37.2 (Jun 2005): 177-196. online.

Dunne, Julie et al. “First Dairying in Green Saharan Africa in the Fifth Millennium BC.”  Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. 486 (21 June 2012): 390-394. online. 

Simoons, Frederick J. “The Antiquity of Dairying in Asia and Africa.” Geographical Review. 61.3 (July 1971): 431-439. online.

Vigne, Jean-Denis et al. “The Early Process of Mammal Domestication in the Near East: New Evidence from the Pre-Neolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in Cypress.” Current Anthropology. 52.s4 (Oct 2011): s255-s271. online.

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