The Swiss Have Made Cheese Since the Iron Age

This discovery pushes Swiss cheesemaking traditions back millennia

swiss cheese
Beau Lark/Corbis

When it comes to our ancestors’ diets, most might assume that humans living in prehistoric times tended toward munching on meat and foraged vegetables. However, archaeologists have found evidence that some Iron Age people living in the Swiss Alps may have had more refined tastes. An analysis of chemical residue found on pottery shards in several sites across the mountain range suggests that some of these prehistoric people made and ate cheese.

A team of archaeologists studying six Iron Age sites across the Swiss Alps have found evidence that the people living there were making and eating cheese made from cow, sheep, and goat milk. Not only do the stone ruins they were exploring look oddly similar to modern mountain dairies, but shards of clay pots found inside show that they once contained residue from heated milk – a key step in the cheesemaking process, Alex Swerdloff reports for Munchies. According to the researchers, this is one of the first hints anyone has ever found pointing toward the origins of mountain cheesemaking.

“Even today, producing cheese in a high mountainous environment requires extraordinary effort,” Newcastle University archaeologist Francesco Carrer, who worked on the study, said in a statement. “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.”

Until now, scientists have had to rely on indirect evidence left behind from ancient farms and grazing fields to learn about the pastoral practices of ancient people living in the Alps. While historians have long known that people living at lower altitudes had been making cheese for at least 4,000 years, little evidence of cheesemaking practices at high altitude have survived the millennia, Katherine Derla reports for TechTimes.

Archaeologists have known for years that Iron Age farmers living in the Alps kept livestock. Many suspected that these people had cheesemakers living among them, but researchers had no direct evidence to support this theory. The earliest medieval sources that describe the cheesemaking process only date back to 1115 in Switzerland’s Gruyere region, according to the Swiss news site the Local. However, this discovery pushes Swiss cheesemaking traditions back millennia.

“We knew that there was an old story of cheesemaking in Switzerland but we did not know it was such a long time ago,” Manuela Sonderegger, a spokesperson for the industry group Switzerland Cheese Marketing tells the Local. “We thought that in the Iron Age it was produced in Persia, so it was a surprise that they now found evidence here in Switzerland to say that our tradition is also really long.”

It’s unclear whether Iron Age Swiss cheese was made from a single dairy source or was a combination of milk from different animals. However, the samples recovered by the archaeologists suggests that cheesemaking made its way into to mountains at around the same time that human populations in the lowlands were increasing. As more and more people began competing for land to start farms on, it’s possible that the herder were forced into the mountains in search of better pastures to raise their livestock on.

“We can now put alpine cheese production into the bigger picture of what was happening at lower levels,” Carrer said in a statement.

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