New Evidence Pushes Cheese-Making Back by 4,000 Years

A suite of Middle Neolithic pottery, including a typical Danilo ware, figulina, and rhyton. (Image: Sibenik City Museum)
A suite of Middle Neolithic pottery, including a typical Danilo ware, figulina, and rhyton. (Image: Sibenik City Museum)

Analysis of fatty residue in pottery from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia revealed evidence of fermented dairy products — soft cheeses and yogurts — from about 7,200 years ago, according to an international team of researchers. Sarah B. McClure, associate professor of anthropology, said:

The presence of milk in pottery in this area is seen as early as 7,700 years ago, 500 years earlier than fermented products, said the researchers. DNA analysis of the populations in this area indicate that the adults were lactose-intolerant, but the children remained able to consume milk comfortably up to the age of 10. McClure explained:

However, about 500 years later, the researchers see a shift not only from pure milk to fermented products, but also in the style and form of pottery vessels. McClure added:

Pottery samples were selected from stratigraphic levels with radiocarbon dates generated on bones and seeds (see S1 Table for details). Examples of pottery types from the Dalmatian Neolithic: a. Impresso Ware; b. Figulina; c. Danilo fine ware; d. Rhyton; e. fragment of a sieve. (Photos printed under a CC BY license, with permission from Muzej Grada Šibenika 2018)

Pottery samples were selected from stratigraphic levels with radiocarbon dates generated on bones and seeds (see S1 Table for details). Examples of pottery types from the Dalmatian Neolithic: a. Impresso Ware; b. Figulina; c. Danilo fine ware; d. Rhyton; e. fragment of a sieve. (Image: Photos printed under a CC BY license, with permission from Muzej Grada Šibenika 2018)

When only meat, fish, and some milk residue is found in pottery, during the Early Neolithic, the pottery is a style called “Impressed Ware” found throughout the area. Five hundred years later, in the Middle Neolithic, another pottery style using different technology existed — Danilo pottery — which defines the era in this area and includes plates and bowls. There are three subtypes of Danilo pottery.

An example of an Early Neolithic Impressed Ware vessel. (Image: Sibenik City Museum)

An example of an Early Neolithic Impressed Ware vessel. (Image: Sibenik City Museum)

Figulina makes up 5 percent of this type and is highly fired and buff-colored, often slipped and decorated. All this pottery contained milk residue. The other Danilo wares contained animal fats and fresh water fish residue. Rhyta, which are footed vessels with round bodies and are often animal- or human-shaped, have large openings on the sides and distinctive handles. The researchers found that three of the four rhyta in their sample showed evidence of cheese.

Selection of rhyta from Neolithic sites in Dalmatia. (Image: Sibenik City Museum)

Selection of rhyta from Neolithic sites in Dalmatia. (Image: Sibenik City Museum)

The third category of Danilo ware is sieves, which are often used in cheese-making to strain treated milk when it separates into curds and whey. Three of the four sieves in the sample showed evidence of secondary milk processing into either cheese or other fermented dairy products. The researchers reported in the study that was published in PLOS One:

The researchers looked at pottery from two sites in Croatia in Dalmatia — Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj. When possible, they selected samples from unwashed pottery, but because some pottery forms are rarer, used washed samples for the sieves. They tested the pottery residue for carbon isotopes, which can indicate the type of fat and can distinguish between meat, fish, milk and fermented milk products. They used radiocarbon dating on bone and seeds to determine the pottery’s age.

The archaeological site of Pokrovnik during excavation with the modern village, Dalmatia, Croatia. (Image: Andrew M.T. Moore)

The archaeological site of Pokrovnik during excavation with the modern village, Dalmatia, Croatia. (Image: Andrew M.T. Moore)

According to the researchers, dairying — and especially cheese and fermented milk products — 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.

It also supplied a storable form of nutrition for adults, because the fermentation of cheese and yogurt reduce the lactose content of milk products, making it palatable for adults as well as children. With a food source that could buffer the risk of farming in colder northern climates, farmers could expand their territories.

Provided by: Pennsylvania State University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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