Cheese is surprisingly gross — but useful

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


I spent some time this week working on a short story featuring androids made out of fungus and trying to come up with variants of the old "is a hotdog a sandwich?" problem. In the process I wound up tracking down how to make cheese with varying levels of technology.

Fun Facts

Digested Delectables

Neolithic humans eating chyme (from the bellies of predators that ate lactating females) or lactating females themselves may have been related to the early invention of cheese and may even be related to the origins of lactose tolerance in humans. Chyme is basically gastric juices and partially digested food from the entrails of animals.

Evolutionary Advantages

As best I've been able to piece together, early northern European farmers weren't themselves lactose tolerant, but kept milk producers around to feed their children fresh milk since kids were until around age ten. This meant they could wean earlier and have kids more closely together, since breastfeeding reduces fertility. Then eventually (about 500 years later) they started producing cheese and yogurt, which reduced the lactose content of the dairy products enough to be usable as nutrition for adults.

Chinese Cheese

Although the genes for producing lactase (which lets people digest milk sugar) beyond childhood are really only common in Europeans, the Han Chinese relationship with cheese is pretty complex. Fermented mares milk was associated with the Mongols, which may have been one reason they avoided it, but recent scholarship argues that elites in China did consume dairy, just mostly in processed forms like butter, yogurt, clotted cream, and cheese.

Dirty Holes

Cheeses known for their holes, like Swiss cheeses, have been surprisingly mysterious for a really long time. In the early 1900s, scientists proposed that the holes were caused by bacteria, but a new (2015) theory says that the real cause is tiny hay particles in the milk buckets. Apparently the holes in modern Swiss cheese have been getting smaller because the cooking process is so much cleaner now that cheesemakers use closed buckets.

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my review of Tamed by Alice Roberts, which touches on the domestication of cows.


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