A study published last month in the journal Nature presents what could be the earliest evidence of cheese-making in South Asia. The study, led by Kalyan Sekhar Chakraborty, a researcher at University of Toronto Mississauga, is based on archaeological finds from the Kotada Bhadli settlement –– located in modern day-Gujarat’s Kutch district –– which was an agro-pastoral settlement in the Indus Valley civilisation, occupied from the mid to the late third millennium BCE.
What is the evidence?
The findings are based on analysis of the absorbed lipid residues in unglazed ceramic vessels. In simpler terms, this means that residues of fatty acids –– organic compounds found in plant and animal products ––which had been absorbed into pottery remnants found at archaeological sites were extracted and analysed to identify what the people who used these vessels might have eaten.
Among other types of food is evidence of dairy processing, that is, the preservation of milk through fermentation and other techniques.
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Why is this important?
The significance of the finding lies in the revelation that cheese was very likely made and consumed in the subcontinent during what is known as the Mature Harappan period. This would make it the earliest evidence of cheese-making in the region.
Until now, there has only been speculation about when cheese was first made in the subcontinent, with food historian KT Achaya noting in his book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion (1994), that references to what may be cheese appear during the Vedic period: “Two forms, with and without hotels, of dadhanwat are noted; these may be paneer and ripened cheese respectively.”
In the same book, Achaya notes the existence of “the Aryan taboo on deliberate milk curdling”. He speculates that the taboo may have been lifted when the Portuguese, who came to India in the 16th century and had formed settlements by the mid-17th century, made cottage cheese, which they loved, by “‘breaking’ milk with acidic materials”.
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Does this mean cheese making originated in India?
While the new study could establish the existence of dairy processing in India as far back as 4,500 years ago, previous studies have shown that cheese was likely being made even earlier in other parts of the world.
In 2018, a study used carbon dating of lipid residues in pottery from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia to establish the practice of dairy processing in the Mediterranean over 7,000 years ago in 5200 BPE.
In another paper published in 2012, researchers from the University of Bristol found chemical evidence in pottery shards from Neolithic sites in northern Europe that showed the existence of cheese-making in the region about 7,500 years ago, in the sixth millennium BCE.
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