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15 October 2006
Early Brits boiled milk and processed it to make foods

New evidence shows that people have been slurping up yogurt since at least as far back as the Neolithic. Food particles found embedded in ancient cooking pots reveal that Britain’s first farmers boiled milk and processed it to make foods such as cheese, butter and yogurt, according to a report in the latest British Archaeology.
     The find adds to the growing body of evidence that many Neolithic Europeans living 3,000 to 6,000 years ago were dairymen as well as farmers. In other parts of the world, yogurt-eating appears to have begun even earlier. Earlier this year, another team of researchers found similar milk processing evidence dating to 8,000 years ago from Romania, Hungary and Switzerland. Early dairy farmers likely made their yogurt and cheese to ensure their food lasted. Processing milk improves storage life of the resulting products, such as ghee and cheese, which lead researcher Sebastian Payne said could have lasted for years without refrigeration. "The cheese would have been fairly sharp, but I would rather eat strong cheese than starve," said Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage.
     He and colleagues studied degraded fats on thousands of pieces of ancient cooking pots. Stearic acid — common to animal fats — predominated, and the scientists believe meat dishes were cooked in the pots that showed signs of scorching from being placed over a fire. Some stearic acid, however, had a chemical signature associated with milk fats from cattle, sheep and goats. Payne suspects that in Britain, farmers were working with cows' milk, since evidence for the other animals in English prehistory is rare, and cattle would have produced well after summer grazing. Ancient cow bones in Britain also indicate farmers were killing older cows.
     "You can keep feeding a cow past adulthood, but its meat would just keep getting tougher," Payne said. "When we compare the British kill off pattern with that of other countries where we know cattle was being kept for meat, the animals in England appear to have been much older at the time of death." Payne suspects British farmers traveled with starter culture — similar to what’s used today for sourdough and friendship breads — to make fermented products like buttermilk and yogurt, which are easier for lactose-intolerant people to digest.

Source: Discovery News (10 October 2006)

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