Archaeologists Find Evidence Of 7,200-Year-Old Cheese Inside Ancient Croatian Pottery

The cheese was kept in specially designed clay vessels known as Rhyta pottery, created for the sole purpose of cheese-making.

Old cheese
barmalini / Shutterstock

The cheese was kept in specially designed clay vessels known as Rhyta pottery, created for the sole purpose of cheese-making.

A recent expedition into Croatia’s Dalmatian coast has yielded the oldest known evidence of cheese-making in the form of fatty residue preserved for 7,200 years inside ancient pottery, reports CNN.

This spectacular discovery was made by an international team of scientists led by anthropologist Sarah McClure of the Pennsylvania State University. The researchers uncovered the 7,200-year-old cheese residue after investigating clay pots found at two distinct archaeological sites in Dalmatia, notes Science Daily, citing Penn State.

According to the sources, the ancient substance was left over from the process of making fermented dairy products and was discovered inside a special type of pottery created specifically for the manufacturing and storing of soft cheeses and yogurt.

“This is the earliest documented lipid residue evidence for fermented dairy in the Mediterranean region, and among the earliest documented anywhere to date,” the team detailed in a study, published today in the journal PLOS One.

The news comes a little more than three weeks after a separate study announced the discovery of the world’s oldest intact cheese, unearthed from an Egyptian tomb dating back 3,200 years, the Inquisitr recently reported.

This latest find changes everything we though we knew about the history of cheese-making, pushing back the timeline by 4,000 years, McClure points out.

The team arrived at their momentous conclusion after analyzing washed and unwashed pottery from the Neolithic villages of Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj. The scientists tested the carbon isotopes of the clay vessels in order to reveal what kind of food they once contained — whether they held meat, fish, milk, or fermented dairy.

“Residue analysis is relatively new in archaeology. People have been doing it for, maybe, 10 years,” said McClure. “Now that the fieldwork methods are catching up with the lab-work methods, we’re seeing that we should be preserving at least a subsample without washing — now that we know we can get better data from residues.”

At the same time, the anthropologists used radiocarbon dating on other items recovered from the two sites, such as seeds and bone fragments. This helped them date the pottery, which was found to be between 7,700 and 7,200 years old.

Specially Designed Pottery For Cheese-Making

The oldest clay vessels, dating back to the Early Neolithic (5700 BCE), belonged to a pottery style known as “Impressed Ware” and were found to contain only meat and fish residue, along with some traces of milk.

The other pieces of pottery were dated to the Middle Neolithic (5200 BCE) and represented a new type of clay vessels dubbed Danilo pottery, which was organized into three subtypes: the decorated and buff-colored Figulina, used exclusively for holding milk, animal fats, and fish; the animal-shaped Rhyta with distinct handles and large side openings, made specifically for storing cheese; and a special type of sieves used by cheese makers to strain milk after it was separated into curds and whey.

All in all, the team looked at four rhyta vessels and four sieves and discovered that three pottery samples each preserved the chemical signature of cheese and secondary milk processing into either cheese or other fermented dairy products, respectively.

In a statement for Live Science, McClure ventured a guess about what this ancient cheese would have looked like when it was still fresh.

“I’d imagine it [was] sort of a fresh, firm cheese, not as squishy as a ricotta, with a little more heft to it — like a farmer’s cheese or perhaps like a feta.”

Commenting on the findings, the anthropologist underlined that cheese production in 5200 BCE was important enough for people to be “making new types of kitchenware,” pointing to a “cultural shift.”

“First, we have [the process of] milking around, and it was probably geared for kids because it is a good source of hydration and is relatively pathogen-free,” said McClure.

Then, 500 years later, the ancient dwellers of Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj started fermenting milk to make cheese, which may have turned out to be a game changer for early European farmers, the team argues.

Their hypothesis is based on a few important benefits introduced by fermented dairy products in the life of a then-lactose-intolerant adult population. Aside from gradually easing into eating cheese and thereby curbing their lactose intolerance, the ancient people of Dalmatia found themselves with a food item that was easier to preserve and transport, which may have helped along their migration from the shores of the Mediterranean northward into Europe.

“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,” the authors wrote in their paper.