Cheese aged by aeons
Evidence of ancient cheese has pushed back the origin date for the delicious snack.
International researchers have discovered evidence of cheese-making in the Mediterranean region that is around 7,200 years old.
They found fatty acids on vessels unearthed in Croatian archaeological sites - Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, occupied between 6000 and 4800BCE - suggesting people began making cheese around 2,000 years earlier than we thought.
Cheese-making may have helped farming communities expand to northern latitudes, the scientists suggest.
Access to milk and cheese has been linked to the spread of agriculture across Europe starting around 9,000 years ago. But evidence for cheese production in the Mediterranean has, until now, dated back only as far the beginning of the Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago.
In this study, researchers analysed stable carbon isotopes of fatty acids preserved on pots from two Neolithic villages on the Dalmatian coast east of the Adriatic Sea and found direct evidence for much earlier production of cheese.
The two villages, Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, were occupied between 6000 and 4800BCE and preserve several types of pottery across that age range. The analysis found evidence of milk, along with meat and fish, throughout this period and evidence of cheese starting around 5200BCE. The residents of these villages appear to have used specific pottery types for the production of different foods, with cheese residue being most common on rhyta and sieves.
These data indicate that cheese was established in the Mediterranean by 7,200 years ago when fermented dairy products, being easily storable and relatively low in lactose content, would have been an important source of nutrition for all ages in early farming populations.
“This research presents the first evidence of cheese production through identified stages of dairy fermentation in functionally specific vessels in the Mediterranean region over 7000 years ago,” the paper states.
“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.”