Neolithic tribes in Europe were producing cheese more than 7,000 years ago, archaeologists have discovered, after cheese residue was found in pottery discovered at digs on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
Analysis of the fatty residue revealed evidence of soft cheeses and yoghurts dating back 7,200 years, 4,000 years before the previously known date for cheese-making.
"This pushes back cheese-making by 4,000 years," said Sarah B McClure, associate professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.
The discovery was made at two archaeological sites in Croatia, where the remains of Neolithic villages and evidence of house structures were found, along with stone tools, pottery fragments and animal bones.
An international team found that Neolithic people in the area were using pottery vessels to hold milk as far back as 7,700 years ago but that 500 years later they started making vessels for fermented products such as cheese and yoghurt.
The switch in diet necessitated the production of different containers, the scientists said.
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"Cheese production is important enough that people are making new types of kitchenware," said Prof McClure. "We are seeing that cultural shift."
The primitive kitchenware, known as Danilo pottery, included bowls, plates, sieves and round-bodied vessels with distinctive handles and large openings on the sides.
Nearly all of them displayed evidence of being used to produce cheese.
"This is the earliest documented lipid residue evidence for fermented dairy in the Mediterranean region, and among the earliest documented anywhere to date," the scientists reported in the journal PLOS One.
Different types of residue found on the pottery were tested for carbon isotopes, which can identify the type of fat involved, distinguishing between meat, fish, milk and fermented milk products.
Radiocarbon dating was used to determine the age of the pottery.
The development of cheese-making “may have opened northern European areas for farming because it reduced infant mortality and allowed for earlier weaning, decreasing the birth interval and potentially increasing population,” the research team said.
“With a food source that could buffer the risk of farming in colder northern climates, farmers could expand their territories.”
Last month archaeologists working on an ancient Egyptian tomb announced they had discovered the remains of 3,200-year-old cheese, claiming it was among the oldest cheese ever discovered. But the find in Croatia eclipses the Egyptian cheese by several millennia.
The ancient Egyptian cheese, described as “a solidified whitish mass”, came from broken jars found in the tomb of a high-ranking official called Ptahmes, who was mayor of the ancient city of Memphis.
The cheese would have had a “really acidy” taste, according to chemistry professor and cheese historian Paul Kindstedt from the University of Vermont.
He said it would have tasted a bit like goat’s cheese, would have been soft and spreadable, and would not have lasted long in the heat of the Egyptian desert.
The tomb, discovered in a necropolis near Cairo, was first unearthed in the 1880s but was covered by shifting sands and only rediscovered eight years ago.