Butter was invented by Neolithic people after our Stone Age predecessors succeeded at domesticating ruminants such as goats, sheep, camels, and yaks (cows became domesticated much later in human history). It is believed by many anthropologists that butter was discovered by accident when one day a herdsman, who was using an animal skin sewn into a pouch as a container for milk, left the pouch in the shade of a tree all day and the milk began to ferment. Having forgotten about the pouch of fermenting milk, the temperature would have cooled significantly over night and chilled the milk. Picking up the pouch the next morning and carrying it with him all day as he and his herd moved to new pasture, the butter would have sloshed around for some time in the pouch. And, as it so happens, this rhythmic turning of cooled, lightly fermented milk is the ideal condition for churning to make butter! When the herdsman opened his pouch, he would have found the butter separated out into flakes, floating in a thinnish milky fluid (aka buttermilk).
Recognizing the value of butter, humans eventually developed more intentional processes and tools for making butter beyond just the simple animal skin sack method. Starting in 2500 BCE, the Sumerians were using specialized terra-cotta jugs for holding milk and a special plunger for churning it. Butter was also made in round-bottomed gourds by tribes in Africa, and it became a stale among the Vedic Aryan people of the Indus River valley and northern India.
Butter had gained popularity the world over by the first century in most areas, with the exception of the Mediterranean region, which favored olive oil. Dairy animals had indeed been domesticated in this area, but the craggy landscape was not particularly hospitable for raising large herds of ruminants, and the milk that these people did get from their animals was mainly used for making cheese. Another factor that prevented butter from becoming the main fat used by the ancient Greeks and Romans was the fact that butter was associated with the “barbarian” tribes of Northern Europe, and to consume it was seen as being uncivilized. Instead, the Greeks and Romans viewed olive oil as the fat of choice for “civilized” people. Despite the disdain that these cultures held for butter as a foodstuff, they did use it in a medicinal capacity and mixed it into poultices and other medicines.
In Part II on the origins of butter, we’ll look at how the ancient Egyptians used butter, and how it was used by Asian cultures.
Khosrova, Elaine. Butter: A Rich History. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016.