7,000-year-old Evidence of Cheese-making 'Found in the Mediterranean'

The archaeological site of Pokrovnik during excavations, Dalmatia, Croatia. Andrew M.T. Moore

An international team of researchers say they have found the earliest known evidence of cheese production in the Mediterranean.

According to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, fatty acids detected on pottery shards from two Croatian archaeological sites indicate that cheese was being made in the region at least 7,200 years ago.

Previously, the oldest direct evidence for cheese-making in the Mediterranean dated to the beginning of the Bronze Age, some 5,000 years ago. However, we know that access to milk and cheese has been linked to the spread of agriculture across Europe from much earlier times, beginning around 9,000 years ago.

Sarah McClure from Pennsylvania State University and colleagues analyzed fatty acids preserved on potsherds from two Neolithic villages on the Adriatic Sea, known as Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, which were occupied between around 8,000 and 6,800 years ago.

These fatty acids document the presence of milk, meat and fish throughout this period, as well as the processing of milk into fermented products, like cheese, from 5,200 B.C. onwards. Researchers say that the cheese residue was found on ceramic "sieves" which may have been used to separate the curds and whey in milk.

"This research presents the first evidence of cheese production through identified stages of dairy fermentation in functionally specific vessels in the Mediterranean region over 7,000 years ago," McClure told Newsweek. "We set out to look for food residues, thinking that we would find milk given other research in the region. But we were surprised to find evidence of cheese, as well as milk in specialized vessels."

"We know that people were using the sieves to separate curds and whey, and that the resulting cheese was a firm cheese, likely like a farmer's cheese or feta."

The researchers say that cheese production and associated ceramic technologies played a key role in the expansion of early farmers into northern and central Europe. The development of cheese had numerous benefits, allowing Neolithic people to convert raw milk into a solid, storable product that could help them get through the winter and could also be transported, gifted and exchanged.

"Despite the prevalence of lactose-intolerance among ancient farmers, milk could be consumed by young children, while fermentation and cheese production allowed adults to digest dairy products and benefit from their significant nutritional advantages," McClure said.

"We suggest that milk and cheese production among Europe's early farmers reduced infant mortality and helped stimulate demographic shifts that propelled farming communities to expand to northern latitudes."

The latest findings are not the earliest evidence of cheesemaking in the world, however.

A 2013 paper—led by Richard Evershed from the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol and published in the journal Nature—showed that ancient people in what is now Poland were making cheese around 7,500 years ago as evidenced by the presence of dairy fats in ceramic sieves, similar to those reported in the findings from Croatia.

Another paper, also led by Evershed, found abundant milk residues in even older pottery vessels from northwestern Anatolia dated to around 9,000 years ago, providing the earliest evidence of milk processing. However, it is unclear whether these residues come from cheese.

"Clearly the processing of milk into cheese was a widespread activity during the late sixth millennium B.C. in Neolithic Europe," Peter Bogucki, an author on the 2013 Nature study from Princeton University, who was not involved in the latest research, told Newsweek.

"The Croatian evidence shows a progression from straightforward consumption of milk in the Early Neolithic to the processing of milk into cheese in the Middle Neolithic," he said. "In addition to expanding our understanding of the prehistoric diet beyond what we know from animal bones and charred seeds, the recognition of widespread use of dairy products at this early date is crucial for understanding the eventual impact the genetic mutation for lactase persistence."

Lactase persistence is the continued activity of the lactase enzyme into adulthood. Since lactase's only function is the digestion of the sugar lactose in milk, its activity is significantly reduced in most mammal species after childhood, although persistence is common in many human populations.

"If the genetic mutation for lactase persistence had taken place among people who did not use dairy products, it would have had conferred no adaptive advantage," Bogucki said. "Luckily, the people of Neolithic Europe did use dairy products, so when the gene for lactase persistence appeared among them, those who had it obtained substantial nutritional advantages."

Not everyone is convinced by the results presented in the new study, however. Andrej Shevchenko, from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Germany, suggests that the paper doesn't definitively prove that any of the fatty acids detected by the researchers come from cheese.

"What is the evidence that this ancient milk was ever converted to cheese?," he told Newsweek. "Why can't it be dried milk or anything alike, or a mix of milk and another food—say, grains? Finding a milk marker—assuming the analysis is absolutely correct—does not directly imply fermentation."

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