TED-Ed Video Lesson Transcript:
Before empires and royalty, before pottery and writing, before metal tools and weapons – there was cheese.
As early as 8000 BCE, the earliest Neolithic farmers living in the Fertile Crescent began a legacy of cheesemaking almost as old as civilization itself.
The rise of agriculture led to domesticated sheep and goats, which ancient farmers harvested for milk.
But when left in warm conditions for several hours, that fresh milk began to sour. Its lactic acids caused proteins to coagulate, binding into soft clumps.
Upon discovering this strange transformation, the farmers drained the remaining liquid – later named whey – and found the yellowish globs could be eaten fresh as a soft, spreadable meal.
These clumps, or curds, became the building blocks of cheese, which would eventually be aged, pressed, ripened, and whizzed into a diverse cornucopia of dairy delights.
The discovery of cheese gave Neolithic people an enormous survival advantage. Milk was rich with essential proteins, fats, and minerals. But it also contained high quantities of lactose – a sugar which is difficult to process for many ancient and modern stomachs.
Cheese, however, could provide all of milk’s advantages with much less lactose. And since it could be preserved and stockpiled, these essential nutrients could be eaten throughout scarce famines and long winters.
Some 7th millennium BCE pottery fragments found in Turkey still contain telltale residues of the cheese and butter they held.
By the end of the Bronze Age, cheese was a standard commodity in maritime trade throughout the eastern Mediterranean. In the densely populated city-states of Mesopotamia, cheese became a staple of culinary and religious life.
Some of the earliest known writing includes administrative records of cheese quotas, listing a variety of cheeses for different rituals and populations across Mesopotamia Records from nearby civilizations in Turkey also reference rennet.
This animal byproduct, produced in the stomachs of certain mammals, can accelerate and control coagulation. Eventually this sophisticated cheesemaking tool spread around the globe, giving way to a wide variety of new, harder cheeses.