If you're anything like us, when you think about prehistoric man's eating habits, you probably think about Fred Flintstone arriving at the drive-thru and ordering a side of ribs that will be hung from the side of his foot propelled car.
Shockingly, that turns out not to be the case.
What prehistoric man was actually eating—at least some up in the Swiss Alps—was cheese. An international team of scientists led by the University of York and Newcastle University has found that cheese was made in what is now Switzerland as far back as the first millennium BC. The team, which also included scholars from the University of Liverpool and Swiss and Brazilian research institutes, can say this with certainty because they found residue of cheese left on fragments of ceramic pots dating back to the Iron Age. The pots were found at six different spots, high in the Alps.
Until now, almost nothing was known about the origins of cheesemaking at high altitudes because the preservation of archaeological sites at these altitudes is poor. But a recent study of the ruins of several stone buildings found high in the Alps reveals evidence of alpine dairying. The stone buildings are uncannily similar to those used by modern cheese producers in the Alps today.
Making cheese way up in mountainous terrain isn't easy. Dr. Francesco Carrer, Research Associate at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Newcastle University, said: "Even today, producing cheese in a high mountainous environment requires extraordinary effort. Prehistoric herders would have had to have detailed knowledge of the location of alpine pastures, be able to cope with unpredictable weather and have the technological knowledge to transform milk into a nutritious and storable product."
Alpine cheeses like Emmental and Gruyère are almost synonymous with Switzerland. Now we know this may be because people in the area have been making cheese since prehistory.
Swiss cheesemakers are pretty psyched about the discovery. Speaking to The Local, Manuela Sonderegger of industry body Switzerland Cheese Marketing said: "We knew that there was an old story of cheesemaking in Switzerland but we did not know it was such a long time ago. So for us it's really interesting news."
Perhaps the new finding will encourage Switzerland to stick to the tried-and-true, old-fashioned methods of making Swiss cheese. Swiss cheese has been losing its holes of late, and researchers have tied that problem to the use of newfangled "closed" milking systems, which don't let in as much good bacteria as the old, open-bucket systems used in the past. Swiss cheese evidently requires some filthiness to be holey and delicious.
And this is something that the Neanderthals who made cheese back in the day undoubtedly knew.