Archaeologists from the universities of York and Newcastle analyzed residues on ceramic pots found at six places in the Swiss Alps and discovered evidence of cheesemaking.
Residues on pottery fragments dating from the Iron Age – which started around 1,000BC – showed evidence of heating milk as part of the cheesemaking process, the team said in a statement.
The fragments were found in the ruins of stone buildings similar to those used by modern Swiss dairy farmers working in alpine pastures in summer.
The evidence is an archaeological breakthrough since nothing was known about the origins of cheesemaking at high altitude until now, said researchers.
“Even today, producing cheese in a high mountainous environment requires extraordinary effort,” Dr Francesco Carrer of Newcastle University said in a statement
“Prehistoric herders would have had to have detailed knowledge of the location of alpine pastures, be able to cope with unpredictable weather and have the technological knowledge to transform milk into a nutritious and storable product.”
The discovery is also exciting news for Switzerland's cheesemaking industry.
Speaking to The Local, Manuela Sonderegger of industry body Switzerland Cheese Marketing said: “We knew that there was an old story of cheesemaking in Switzerland but we did not know it was such a long time ago. So for us it's really interesting news.”
“We thought that in the Iron Age it was produced in Persia, so it was a surprise that they now found evidence here in Switzerland to say that our tradition is also really long,” she added.
Swiss historians knew that cattle were bred on land in the region as far back as the Neolithic period, but there was no archaeological evidence of cheesemaking itself.
The first medieval source that mentions the production of cheese dates back to 1115 in what is now the Gruyère region, whilst cheesemaking in the Emmental is documented in 1273.