How Long Have Humans Eaten Dairy?
Dairy foods are rich both in nutrients and in history – deeply woven into the culinary, social and economic fabric of mankind. From milk to cheese, dairy has been enjoyed by humans for ages. Here’s a quick look at the history of some of our favorite dairy foods.
For thousands of years, prehistoric humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers – meaning they followed migrating herds of wild animals and foraged for plants to eat. Around 10,000 B.C., there was a massive change called the Neolithic Revolution (aka Agricultural Revolution) in which humans domesticated animals and began farming. This allowed them to settle down and form more complex civilizations.
The domestication of animals gave humans the opportunity to be a part of their animals’ lives from start to end. Somewhere along the way, around 8,000 B.C., someone decided to try milk, and they liked it!
This discovery happened in a time before refrigeration, when milk spoiled in a single day under the hot sun of the present-day Middle East. Anthropologists believe humans tried the sour, creamy substance and thought it was delicious! We now call this substance “yogurt,” coming from the ancient Turkish root word of “yogurmak” meaning “to condense or thicken.” By 6,000 B.C., there was evidence that around the Fertile Crescent – present-day Iraq and Turkey – humans were producing yogurt as a diet staple.
The discovery of cheese also may have been accidental, according to anthropologists. The legend is that a merchant was carrying milk in a leakproof sack made of sheep stomach across the hot desert. The sheep stomach produced renin – an enzyme similar to the ones we use today to create many cheeses. When the merchant opened his sack, he found a tangy solid substance, thanks to the naturally occurring renin combined with the heat.
Cheese was a great discovery because it lasted even longer than yogurt. Soon afterwards, people were salting cheese, then using herbs, spices and even fruit to flavor cheese. Cheese became both a staple and a delicacy. There are many documented references of cheese and yogurt in ancient texts such as in Homer’s “Iliad” and “The Odyssey” from 800 B.C., or in Pliny’s Natural History from 77 B.C., in which two whole chapters were devoted to cheese alone!
As cheese was traded further north, different climates and types of milk allowed for humans to create a larger variety of cheese. Some of these cheeses we still eat today.
Fun Facts About Dairy
- Several religious texts, including the Bible and ancient Indian manuscripts, reference yogurt and honey as a delicacy.
- Brie was discovered by the Emperor Charlemagne in a monastery in A.D. 774. He loved it so much he ordered 500 pounds for his entire court.
- Gorgonzola was created in Milan in A.D. 879.
- Cheddar hails from Somerset, England, circa A.D. 1,500.
- In 1831, Swiss immigrant women brought the art of cheesemaking to the U.S. (specifically Wisconsin) by making cheese and selling it in nearby towns to help support their families.
Dairy has a long and rich history intricately woven into the past of mankind. The next time you’re drinking milk or making a beautiful cheeseboard, just know that it took over 10,000 years of knowledge and history to make it happen.