In a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers analyzed stable carbon isotopes of fatty acids preserved on pottery shards recently unearthed at two archaeological sites in Croatia.
The two sites, Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, are Neolithic-era villages on the Dalmatian coast east of the Adriatic Sea. The villagers who lived there between 6000 and 4800 B.C. used three types of pottery – figulina, rhyta and sieves – in the production of different foods.
Researchers’ analysis found evidence of milk, along with meat and fish, on pottery used throughout this period and evidence of cheese making starting around 5200 B.C. Cheese residue was most common on rhyta and sieves.
The study, led by Sarah McClure of Pennsylvania State University, said the findings are the earliest known evidence of cheese production in the Mediterranean region which, until now, dated back to the Bronze Age 5,000 years ago.
“These data indicate that cheese was established in the Mediterranean by 7,200 years ago,” the study authors wrote.
Earlier evidence of cheese production in the Mediterranean was based on interpretations of land use patterns, artifacts such as Italian “milk boilers” from the Bronze Age and references to cheese in Book XI of Homer’s “The Iliad.”
Researchers said cheese production and the use of pottery techniques to preserve food were key factors aiding the expansion of early farmers into northern and central Europe.
Cheese provided a critical source of calories, protein, and fat during droughts, epidemics and famines and in between harvests.
“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,” the study authors wrote. “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.”
One challenge for many of the earliest farming communities was a high prevalence of lactose intolerance, according to genetic data analyzed by researchers.
Fermentation of milk into yogurt and cheese decreases lactose content and allows for more widespread consumption, especially among young children.
“Early childhood is one of the most dangerous periods in pre-industrial human societies, as evidenced by increased mortality seen in numerous prehistoric skeletal collections,” the authors wrote, adding that milk products provided a “relatively pathogen-free and nutrient rich food source” that increased their chances of reaching adulthood.
Milk also allowed young children to be weaned earlier, which in turn would have shortened the time between births and boosted birth rates.
Researchers attribute milk consumption to the “significant demographic transition” among Neolithic communities in Europe.
“Children in early farming populations who were able to digest milk and tolerate dairy products into early adulthood would have had survival and reproductive advantages over other individuals,” the authors said.