Traces of 7,200-Year-Old Cheese Found in Croatia

A new study posits that cheese production may have helped ancient farmers expand into Europe

Rhyta, a type of ancient vessel, were found to contain traces of cheese. Sibenik City Museum

Cheese, in addition to being one of the most delicious foods to ever exist, was a vital source of nutrition for ancient peoples. Not only is it chock full of calories, because it is fermented, it proved easy to store and transport. In fact, according to a new study, cheese may have helped spur ancient migrations from the Mediterranean to Europe.

As Maya Wei-Haas reports for National Geographic, an international team of researchers has announced the discovery of traces of cheese on 7,200-year-old pottery from two Neolithic villages on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast.

This very aged cheese residue is about as old as the cheese fats found several years ago on ceramics from Poland, and it is several thousand years older than the chunk of cheese discovered in Egypt earlier this summer. The Croatian cheese may also mark the earliest evidence of cheese-making in the Mediterranean; previously, signs of the tasty treat could be traced back no earlier than the Bronze Age.

The researchers weren’t specifically looking for traces of centuries-old cheese when they began testing pottery shards from the villages of Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj. Instead, Wei-Haas reports, they were interested in learning more about food storage in the ancient Mediterranean. They began analyzing traces of fats preserved on ancient vessels and based on the fats’ mass and carbon isotope compositions, tried to determine what types of food were stored in the rhytons.

As the researchers report in the journal PLOS One, the oldest pottery fragments, which dated around 7,700 years ago to the Early Neolithic period, were found to contain traces of milk, meat and fish. Evidence of cheese-making emerged later, on Middle Neolithic vessels dating to about 5200 B.C.

Interestingly, different types of food from this period were associated with different types of pottery. Meat was found in a style of Neolothic pottery known as Danilo, while milk was common in a subtype of Danilo called “figulina.” Several rhyta, footed vessels that were often shaped like animals or humans, were found to contain cheese.

"I'd imagine it [was] sort of a fresh, firm cheese," Sarah B. McClure, an associate professor of anthropology at Penn State and lead author of the new study, tells Mindy Weisberger of Live Science. “Not as squishy as a ricotta, with a little more heft to it — like a farmer's cheese or perhaps like a feta."

A number of hole-filled vessels discovered at the Neolithic sites showed signs of secondary milk processing. These, according to the researchers, were likely sieves, used to separate curds from whey in treated milk.

"Cheese production is important enough that people are making new types of kitchenware," McClure said in a statement. "We are seeing that cultural shift."

There are, however, some caveats to the study. As Wei-Haas points out, not all experts agree that the isotopes found on the vessels align so clearly with cheese. “These samples have isotopic fingerprints that fall outside the range common for milk from cows of this period,” she writes. “That's because many modern animals are often fed what's known as silage—a pre-chopped mix that can include corn, grasses, and legumes that changes the isotopic fingerprint in their fats.” As Mélanie Roffet-Salque, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol, tells Wei-Haas, the “cheese” residues found on the rhytons could have even come from meats.

But the study authors maintain that ascribing the isotopes to milk and cheese could explain why people began migrating from the Mediterranean to Europe—an expansion that began in approximately 7000 B.C. and lasted 3,000 years, according to Live Science’s Weisberger.

Milk is a great, nutrient rich food source for children; it may have helped increase life expectancy at a time when infant mortality was high. But genetic data suggests that unlike children, adults in early farming populations were unable to digest lactose, according to the study authors. Cheese-making, which reduces lactose in milk through fermentation, may have allowed adults to reap the nutritional benefits of all that dairy goodness.

“With a food source that could buffer the risk of farming in colder northern climates,” the Penn State statement concludes, “farmers could expand their territories.”

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