Nobody can deny that cheese plays an important role in modern society. But 7,200 years ago, on the coast of what is now Croatia, ancient cheese was saving lives. As scientists write in a new Plos One article about newly discovered traces of the Mediterranean’s oldest cheese, fermented dairy products weren’t just a salty snack to serve at cocktail parties. Cheese and milk helped serve up survival.
In the article, published Wednesday, the team led by Penn State associate professor of anthropology Sarah B. McClure, Ph.D., reveal the results of their analysis on ancient pots, which showed that they were once used for making cheese. Previous studies of pottery in the area had shown that the people who lived there had been storing milk for at least 7,700 years, but the new study suggests those Neolithic people learned to turn that milk to cheese sooner than expected.
“This pushes back cheese-making by 4,000 years,” said first author and Penn State associate professor of anthropology, Sarah B. McClure, Ph.D. The transformation of milk into cheese, she suggests in an email to Inverse, was important because it meant local adults could reap the nutritional benefits of animal milk — an important resource, especially when food was scarce. Milk didn’t sit well with the lactose-intolerant locals, but the fermentation involved in making soft cheese (and yogurt) made dairy a little more palatable.
“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,” she says. “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.”
McClure and her team were able to glean all of this from their analysis of functionally and stylistically distinct types of vessels, which showed that Europe’s ancient people had separate types of pots just for making cheese. By scanning for carbon isotopes on the insides of these bowls, the team discovered evidence of cheese-derived fats on the inner surfaces of rhyta, curvy, footed bowls sometimes shaped like animals or humans.
“We set out to look for food residues, thinking that we would find milk given other research in the region,” says McClure. “But we were surprised to find evidence of cheese, as well as milk in specialized vessels.”
The sieves also examined in the study, used to separate curds and whey, suggested that the cheese these Neolithic people ate was “a firm cheese, likely like a farmer’s cheese or feta,” she says.
The existence of specialized pottery just for cheese-making suggested that cheese had become a pretty important part of everyday life. Animal milk was already important as a mostly germ-free supplement to children’s diets; for lactose-intolerant adults who needed something a little more easily digestible, cheese presented a tasty source of nutrition. In the paper, the team argues that cheese might have even opened up opportunities for farmers to migrate further north into Europe.
Croatia’s curds aren’t the first ancient cheese to make headlines in recent weeks. In August, scientists uncovered a hunk of ancient cheese in an Egyptian pyramid, which was shown to be about 3,200 years old — the most ancient solid cheese sample ever found. The newly discovered traces of Croatia’s cheese are at least 4,000 years older, suggesting humans had a taste of the gouda life far earlier than we imagined.