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I Eat Cheese, Therefore I Write

by | 31 May, 2015

Of course it’s slightly more complicated than my play on Rene Descartes’ famous philosophical proposition. But in simple terms, the discovery of cheese and the evolution of human tolerance to lactose had an influence on the development of written language.

It all started around 10,000 years ago. Hot dry summer and cool wet winter weather patterns had stabilised following the last major ice age, and the people of the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East began to cultivate and domesticate food crops, and later, the goats and sheep attracted by those crops.

But at this time, human adults were universally lactose intolerant, so while they may have milked their cattle, it would have been exclusively for infant consumption.

A turning point came shortly after 7000BC with the Neolithic era of ceramics and pottery. The people now had a vessel in which to collect animal milk. That stored milk, sat in warm temperatures, would have fermented and the curds coagulated into a ricotta-like cheese within just a few hours. At some point a brave individual must have tasted this cheese and realised they could tolerate more of it than they could milk (as around 80% of the lactose is lost in the fermentation and whey separation process).

Fresh curd cheese

Dairying was now proved viable, not just for the very young, but for the whole population. This more frequent exposure to dairy products ultimately led to the natural genetic selection of those who could tolerate lactose later into childhood, then into adulthood. Archeo-genetics show that in perhaps as short as a few thousand years, the mutation for lactose tolerance had spread throughout the region.

Around 4000BC the Sumerian city of Uruk – one of the first cities ever established – grew up east of the current bed of the Euphrates; its people worshipped Inanna, the goddess of love, fertility and the cycle of the seasons. Legend has it that Inanna chose her partner, the shepherd Dumuzi, on the basis that he could provide her with all the cheese, cream, yoghurt and milk she could ever want. As such, the citizens of Uruk (as well as government-controlled shepherds of sacred flocks) would bring cheese and other agricultural products to its temples to gain favour with the goddess. After the offerings had been through a series of rights and rituals in honour of Inanna, the government, in a deal with the temple priests, redistributed this stockpile of produce to civil servants.

The proto-cuneiform symbol for cheese

But managing all those goods in and out quickly became a logistical nightmare. And so the people of Uruk developed an accounting system using pictographic symbols inscribed on clay tablets. These tablets, the earliest examples of which date to 3300BC, have been described as a proto-cuneiform text, and the first step in the evolution of written language.

And thus, the discovery of cheese and the evolution of human tolerance to lactose had an influence on the development of written language.