The chemical signatures from fragments of ancient ceramic pots reveal the prehistoric origins of the much-loved Swiss cheese, researchers found. These pottery shards date back from the Neolithic period all the way to the Iron Age.

Scientists discovered that the chemical signatures from the residue were similar to the ones linked to cheese-making activities such as heating milk from cows and goats.

The pottery shards were unearthed from six separate archeological locations in the Swiss Alps. Archeologists found them in stone building ruins, which are structures similar to the ones used in modern-day mountain dairy farms to make cheese during the summer.

Prior to the study, there was no evidence of cheese-making origins in higher altitudes because of the sites' poor preservation. The research was published in the journal PLOS One on April 21.

"We can now put alpine cheese production into the bigger picture of what was happening at lower levels," said Dr. Francesco Carrer, a research associate at the Newcastle University's School of History, Classics and Archaeology.

Carrer stressed that more research is needed to fully analyze the entire process of the ancient cheese-making process in higher altitudes.

Specifically, further study is needed to determine if only one milk or a blend was used to make the cheese and how long the maturing process was.

The recent study was carried out by a team of international researchers from the Newcastle University, the University of York, the University of Liverpool and several experts from research institutes in Brazil and Switzerland.

The research team said that alpine dairying activities coincided with the population increase as well as the surge in lowland farming. This suggests that herders went to higher altitudes because of the pressures in the lowland pastures.

Carrer added that even in the modern era, cheese-making in higher altitudes is more difficult and requires more effort, suggesting that ancient herders overcame several challenges in their time.

These challenges include advanced knowledge on the mountain pastures locations, ability to cope with the alpine weather and the capability to turn milk into a product that can be stored for months, even years.

"The principal interest of this piece of work is that it provides direct evidence for early dairying at high altitude in the Alps," said Dr. Kevin Walsh, a senior lecturer at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, who was part of the research team.

Photo: Ben Sutherland | Flickr

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