A team of academics have unearthed evidence suggesting the earliest Mediterranean cheese and dairy production occurred in the Dalmatian coast of Croatia more than 7,000 years ago.
Until this discovery, previous evidence of fermented dairy products such as cheese was only documented beginning in the Bronze Age, about 2,000 years later in 3000 BCE.
The research reveals that early production of dairy products could have significantly reduced infant mortality, helping early farming populations expand throughout Europe.
Our discovery is very meaningful in that early cheese and dairy production was essentially very important for the development of the human race, especially in farming regions.
And the emergence of these dairying practices may have driven the evolution of milk-sugar (lactose) digestion enzymes – called lactases – in ancient Europeans.
Cheese and milk provided long-term non-perishable nutrition which helped fuel the demographic and cultural transition of farming into the cooler regions of central and northern Europe.
Researchers from Heriot-Watt University, Pennsylvania State University, Rochester Institute of Technology, and the Šibenik City Museum focused their study on organic residues extracted from early pottery pieces excavated at Pokrovnik, a Neolithic occupation site dated around 6000–4500 BCE.
While numerous earliest Neolithic pottery pieces contained lipids indicative of foodstuffs, diagnostic organic acids extracted from three of four sieve-like artefacts were consistent with their use in the processing of milk into cheese or other fermented dairy products.
Until this study, previous evidence of the antiquity of Mediterranean cheese manufacture was based on controversial interpretations of land-use alongside regional Bronze Age artefacts considered to be milk boilers or cheese graters.
But the new discovery is exceptional because it was excavated from a single site in a single region.
Dr Clayton Magill, a research fellow at the Lyell Centre, Heriot-Watt University, said: “We’re astounded by this exciting discovery, and I’m sure cheese-lovers everywhere will be interested to find out more about the origins and the antiquity of their cheese.
“We know that the consumption of milk and dairy products would have had many advantages for early farming populations because milk, yogurt and cheese are a good source of calories, protein and fat. They could have even been reliable food between harvests or during droughts and famines.
“Probably the most important fact about our study is that milk or cheese would have been a nutritionally rich food source for young children at a time when early childhood, was one of the most dangerous, so this rich food source would have helped high-risk populations survive.
“Our discovery is very meaningful in that early cheese and dairy production was essentially very important for the development of the human race, especially in farming regions."
Dr Sarah McClure, Associate Professor of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University, said: “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.
“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.
“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.”