Human History: Brought to You by Wine, Cheese and Bread

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The wheel, the catapult and all those other ancient mechanical inventions were nifty, but culinary innovations — bread, wine and cheese — had at least as much impact on the world and altered human physiology in the process.

Chemists announced last week that they identified the oldest actual piece of cheese — a 3,200-year-old leftover excavated from the tomb of Ptahmes in Egypt. Using mass spectrometry, an international team of researchers analyzed the protein composition to reveal a mix of sheep or goat and cow’s milk wrapped in cloth.

But there’s reason to believe cheese goes back many millennia before that. Archaeologists have found 7,000-year-old pottery strainers that look like they were used for cheese making. The making of cheese and yogurt can help explain why people took up herding some 10,000 years ago even though adult humans’ default state is lactose intolerance. Some clever and brave people realized that milk that’s spoiled is much easier to digest. We now know that microbes are digesting some of the lactose.

Cheese making ushered dairy products into the human diet, and then, for herding people, any lucky mutants endowed with lactose tolerance would have gotten more nutrition from all dairy products. Genetic studies suggest that genes for lactose tolerance spread through herding people in central Asia and the Middle East, and those lactose-tolerant herder-farmers replaced most of the indigenous hunter-gatherers in Europe around 7,000 years ago.

The first cheeses might have been paired with early wine. Scientists have scraped wine and beer stains from 10,000-year-old pottery. Genes that allow people to process alcohol started to spread in our primate ancestors, who, moving from forest to savanna, might have come across a lot of fallen, naturally fermented fruit.

Bread is even older, according to a study published last July. Scientists found what they believe are bread crumbs at a site that goes back 14,000 years, predating by 4,000 years the development of agriculture. Genes that improve the ability to digest starch seem to have spread among people whose diets included it.

Paleo diets are fine if they help you feel better or lose weight, but don’t think you’re eating like primitive humans. We’ve always been both innovative and adaptable. We’ve long appreciated the finer things in life like wine, cheese and bread.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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