The History of Dairy Products
Got milk? Well, you wouldn’t if it weren’t for these world-churning events.
You can’t spell “milk production” without g-o-a-t-s. Well, technically you could, ..but not historically. Goats were most likely the first dairy animals ever domesticated. Archeological evidence suggests that ancient peoples in what is now Iran and Iraq were selectively breeding these four-legged eating machines as far back as 8,000-9,000 B.C.E. And, while they may not look like much to us modern Americans, the logic behind goat keeping is impeccable. Small, sturdy, and able to eat just about anything you put in front of them, they’re easier creatures to keep healthy, happy, and milk-producing (particularly in cool, mountainous climates) than their larger relatives like cows and sheep. Several breeds have hair that can be shorn and used for clothing. And, like all milk animals, they’re an excellence nutritional value for what you have to put in.
Ruminants, the class of animals from which humans get all their dairy products, have a gigantic four-chambered stomach that allows them to happily digest dry stalks, fibrous vines, and leaves that other animals (humans included) write off as inedible. Their secret: lots and lots of chewing, in addition to partial digestion and regurgitation, then more chewing, followed by a healthy dose of specialized tummy bacteria. Unlike, say, pigs, which eat basically the same food as people and are only useful as meat, ruminants don’t compete with their owners for sustenance. Further, the milk they produce over several years provides far more nutrition than the meat a single animal could ever hope to put out. In fact, it only takes a couple of goats to keep a whole family of people fed for a year.
The extinct auroch.
As the concept of domesticating and milking animals spread from the Middle East, farmers adopted local beasts as their milk-giving ruminant of choice. Depending on things like climate, geography, and population, various regions favored yaks, buffalo, cows, and sheep. All have their own special adaptations that make them better for certain environments and needs. Cows, for instance, were domesticated from long-horned wild aurochs around the same time and place as goats. Since at least 3,000 B.C.E. they’ve been bred primarily for their milk, which is richer than goats’ and due to their size, more abundant. However, as heavy eaters with a grass diet, cows really work best in temperate climates. Modern European cows are much smaller than their auroch ancestors, primarily because in captivity, the winter food supply was far less abundant. There is one notable exception to the ruminant rule, however: the camel. The only milkable domesticated animal that isn’t a ruminant, camels were particularly adapted to arid, desert regions, and as such, their milk has been a staple food in parts of Africa since 2500 B.C.E.
Amazingly, China is one of the very few Old World societies that didn’t develop some sort of reliance on milk. Most likely, this had more to do with the local flora than a dislike for dairy. Much of the natural vegetation in China, particularly during the ruminants’ rise, consisted of poisonous plants like wormwood and epazote, making it unsuitable for grazing. However, when nomads, and later Mongolians, came bearing milk, the Chinese were quick to take up the beverage. By 1300 B.C.E. they were using milk to dilute their tea.
Almost as soon as humans began relying on milk for sustenance, they were faced with another problem: How to make it last. Milk, as you’re probably aware, goes sour pretty quickly. And keeping those important nutrients in an edible condition for a longer period of time would have been a key concern. However, it is likely that the first solution to this problem came about by accident.
Early in the history of domestication, travelers, shepherd, and farmers started carrying around drinks in bottles made from sheep or goat skin. Besides water and alcoholic beverages, the other drink that would have been toted around in this way was milk. Left to sit in these containers, cream would have likely separated out on top. Combine this with a day or more of being shaken around in a hip flask and it’s easy to see how one of those workers might have opened his milk jug and inadvertently discovered butter. By 2000 B.C.E. this haphazard churning process had become more standardized. In Arabia and Syria, women poured milk into larger jugs made from the whole leg and thigh of a goat. Then they suspended this jug from beams in the family tent and swung it around until butter formed.
Although it had the same nutrients as milk, butter could sit around longer and still be usable. It quickly became both nutritionally and symbolically important, figuring into countless mythologies as a signifier of abundance and creation. In some areas like Tibet, fermented dairy products like butter tea (along with butter itself) are still a staple of the diet.
Like butter, yogurt is also likely an accidental food. Let’ go back to those original shepherds and farmers, carrying milk around in skin pouches. If they were to skim off the cream or, alternately, remove the lump of butter the cream had formed, they’d be left with “skimmed” milk. Without refrigeration and under the blazing Middle Eastern sun, it wouldn’t have taken long for this milk to turn acidic, ferment, and curdle. The result: yogurt.
Another great way to preserve the nutrients from milk, yogurt could then be sun-dried or stored fresh under a layer of oil. And, long before the health food craze hit the U.S., yogurt fans were already extolling its medicinal properties. A medical text dating to 633 C.E. dubbed yogurt therapeutic. In fact, yogurt was introduced to Europe by a Turkish doctor as a medical treatment, and it saved the life of French king Francis I (curing him of his stomach troubles) in the 16th century.
Once you have yogurt, it’s easy to get cheese. All you have to do is drain the watery natural yogurt, separating solid curd from liquid whey. Then it’s just a matter of salting the curd. Although the method has been refined and increased in complexity since, this is basically how the earliest cheese was made.
By 2000 B.C.E. cheese had become a luxury item in Egypt, with the recipes heavily guarded by priests and manufacturing scenes appearing in murals decorating kingly burials. It’s no wonder the product only became more beloved from there. For the ancient Greeks, cheese was the food of athletes. Romans, picking up on Greek tradition, gave each of their soldiers a daily 1-ounce cheese ration. And in Europe, cheese-making branched into a thousand local specialties that incorporated regional products and production secrets. For instance, real mozzarella, i.e. mozzarella di bufala, is made in the Capagna region south of Rome from the milk supplied by the 100,000 descendants of a herd of buffalo brought to Italy in 700 C.E.
From Big Hair to the Big Bang, here’s a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything by our friends at mental_floss.
Did you know that paper clips started out as Nazi-fighting warriors? Or that cruise control was invented by a blind genius? Read it all in the book!