The Archaeology Of Cheese: Cattle, Strainers, Chemistry, and Genes

Peter Bogucki, PhD, Princeton University

Free to the public

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The story of the earliest use of dairy products in prehistoric Europe weaves together archaeology, analytical chemistry, and genetics. During the sixth millennium B.C., Neolithic communities with many cattle made pottery with perforations, whose logical function was the straining of curds from whey for making cheese. Identification of bovine milk lipid residues in strainer fragments confirmed this hypothesis, and subsequent studies have revealed evidence for the use of dairy products at many sites. It is also probable that dairying was a factor in the further spread of agriculture to northern and western Europe around 4000 B.C.  At roughly the same time, the genetic mutation to overcome lactose intolerance occurred. In order for it to have any adaptive advantage, it needed to spread among people who already knew the use of dairy products. Thus the emergence of dairying is a compelling example of the interplay between human cultural development and biological evolution.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Curry, Andrew. “Archaeology: the milk revolution.” Nature News 500.7460 (2013): 20.


Peter Bogucki is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, where he has executive oversight of advising and degree progress for over 1,300 candidates for the Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, as well as being an archaeologist. He received his B.A. magna cum laude in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1981. His main fields of study have been European prehistory and early farming societies in Europe, encompassing subsistence, settlement, and household studies, bioarchaeology and zooarchaeology, and interactions between foragers, farmers and borderlands.  His work has focused on eastern, central and north/northwestern Europe, with major field work at Neolithic sites in Poland.  His recent research collaborations have been with Mélanie Salque and Richard Evershed at the University of Bristol in 2010-2013 on analysis of ceramic sieves for milk lipid residues, and ongoing work since 2012 with Chelsea Budd and Rick Schulting at Oxford University on analysis of stable isotopes in human skeletons from Osłonki in Poland.  Dr. Bogucki’s edited volumes include Ancient Europe: an Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World, 8000 B.C. – A.D. 1000. (with Pam J. Crabtree in 2004), and his authored volumes include his 2017 The Barbarians, for which he has received the AIA’s Felicia A. Holton Book Award.  Since 1990, he has been a member of a team of authors directed by Paul Bahn to contribute to collective works on archaeology, major titles including Archaeology: the Essential Guide to Our Human Past in 2017.

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