The lands that make up modern-day Pakistan and India have been producing dairy for almost five thousand years now, according to researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga. The team explains that dairy has been produced and consumed by the people of the Indus Valley Civilization from as far back as 2500 BCE.
The origin of cheese
“We found that dairy was an integral part of their diet at a site that dates to about 2500 BCE,” says Chakraborty, who is conducting his post-doctoral research with Heather Miller, an anthropology professor at UTM.
The Indus Valley Civilizations, also known as the Harappans, built one of the greatest empires of the ancient world. Much of the foundations of their success have been lost to time — for example, we don’t have a great idea of how they managed to feed so many people. The study goes some way towards helping us understand the Harappan diet.
According to the findings, dairy was an important part of their diet. It helped fill hungry bellies at home, and likely greased the wheels of commerce.
Chakraborty used a technique called stable isotope analysis to examine food residue from shards of ancient pottery recovered in the area. The analysis reveals that dairy wasn’t only present in diets at the time, but it was in fact quite common (as judging from the available pottery). Out of 59 shards he analyzed, Chakraborty found 21 with traces of dairy fats.
“This [consumption of dairy] would have allowed the accumulation of a surplus of animal protein, without affecting the number of animals in your herd. The question becomes the role of dairy. Why is it so important in this ancient settlement? It is something that could be exchanged between settlements and regions. It is an opportunity for different economic specializations to develop,” he explains.
The analysis was possible because pottery is porous and absorbs some of the food cooked or stored inside during its lifetime. Chakraborty looked for fats (lipids) because they don’t dissolve in water, which makes them more resistant through time.
Chakraborty worked with Professor Greg Slater of McMaster University to analyze these compounds. Their origin can be determined based on the ratio of carbon isotopes they contain. Based on the chemical composition of these fats, they were also able to determine what food the animals who produced them ate.
The paper “Compound specific isotope analysis of lipid residues provides the earliest direct evidence of dairy product processing in South Asia” has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.