Earliest evidence of cheese making found in 7200-year-old pottery from Croatia

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Pottery fragments recovered from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia have pushed back the history of cheese making by nearly 4,000 years. According to an international team of archaeologists, the fatty residue found in the 7,200-year-old pottery points to the earliest evidence of fermented dairy products – particularly yogurt and soft cheeses – in history.

While traces of milk have been found in pottery from this region as far back as 7,700 years ago, this is the first time that researchers have been able to identify the presence of fermented products. As per Sarah B. McClure, an associate professor of anthropology and a member of the research team, DNA analysis of ancient human remains from the area indicates that while the adults were lactose-intolerant, the children could safely consume milk up to ten years of age. She said –

First, we have milking around, and it was probably geared for kids because it is a good source of hydration and is relatively pathogen-free. It wouldn’t be a surprise for people to give children milk from another mammal.

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Archaeological investigation further reveals that in addition to a shift from milk to dairy products some 500 years later, there was also a discernible change in the pottery-making styles of the region. For instance, during the Early Neolithic period, when only meat, fish and milk were in consumption, the pottery in the area was created in a style known as “Impressed Ware”. However, 500 years later, during the Middle Neolithic Age, a new pottery style – by the name of Danilo pottery – emerged. Speaking about the findings, McClure added –

Cheese production is important enough that people are making new types of kitchenware. We are seeing that cultural shift.

The Danilo type of pottery includes bowls and small plates and consists of three sub-categories. As explained by McClure, figulina, which constitutes 5 percent of this pottery style, is a highly fired, ornate variety that is usually buff colored. It mostly contained milk residue, apart from traces of animal fats and freshwater fish.

The second category, known as Rhyta, comprises vessels with footed base and round bodies, usually featuring large handles and openings on the sides. Often shaped like humans or animals, this type of pottery was found to contain traces of cheese. The third category, according to the researchers, is made up of sieves, which again is an essential cheese-making equipment.

Out of the four sieves in the sample, three possessed evidence of secondary fermentation. A report on the findings, published recently in the PLOS ONE journal, stated –

This is the earliest documented lipid residue evidence for fermented dairy in the Mediterranean region, and among the earliest documented anywhere to date.

For the research, the team analyzed pottery fragments uncovered at sites in Croatia, namely Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj. Apart from conducting radiocarbon dating to find out when the pottery was made, they examined the residue collected from the pottery for carbon isotopes. This determines the type of fat, which in turn helps differentiate between milk, meat, fish and fermented dairy product.

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According to the archaeologists, the latest findings are significant as they emphasize the role that dairy products – including cheese and other fermented items – may have played in lowering infant mortality, facilitating earlier weaning and even, increasing population, especially in northern Europe. Given that the process of fermentation reduces the lactose content of milk products, for adults, yogurts and cheeses served as a new source of nutrition that could be stored for longer periods of time.

Interestingly, this comes less than a month after archaeologists discovered the oldest known solid cheese specimen in an ancient Egyptian tomb. Like many ancient Egyptian tombs, the tomb of Ptahmes (a mayor of Memphis), dating from 13th century BC, was first excavated in the late 19th century. However, unlike many other crypts, it was lost to the drifting sands and then rediscovered in 2010.

During a recent survey of the tomb, researchers came across fragments of jars. One of these jars, covered with a fabric cloth, intrigued them by virtue of its content comprising a whitish substance. Quite intriguingly, the analysis of the 3,300-year old whitish residue revealed what is probably the oldest known evidence of solid cheese.

Source/Image Credits: Pennsylvania State University

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