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Europeans have been eating cheese for a while

People in the Mediterranean region were making cheese at least 7200 years ago, new research shows.

Analysis of fatty acid residues recovered from pieces of pot unearthed at two archaeological sites in modern-day Croatia show that fermented milk products were being kept in Neolithic times – pushing back the earliest known evidence for cheese-making in the classical world by more than 2000 years.

The villages, Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, were occupied between 6000 and 4800 BCE. A team of researchers led by Sarah McClure of Pennsylvania State University in the US unearthed fragments of several different types of pot, and tested them for lipid residues. They found strong evidence of cheese, along with meat and fish, and also established that the villagers used different vessel designs to store different foodstuffs.{%recommended 987%}

The findings are interesting because they help to clarify the spread through Europe of genetic mutation linked to lactase persistence – or the ability of adults to digest milk. The mutation is thought to have moved rapidly through the region as populations transitioned from hunter-gathers to pastoralists, with the consequent farming of species such as cows, sheep and goats – starting in Anatolia about 8000 BCE.

Before that, genetic evidence suggests most of the adult population was lactose intolerant. Nevertheless, McClure and colleagues suggest, even if early farmers were unable to tolerate milk, their children likely could – and as such it represented “a relatively pathogen-free and nutrient rich food source, enhancing their chances of survival into adulthood”.

The development of fermentation techniques, and thus the subsequent creation of yoghurt and cheese, brought multiple advantages. Fermentation reduces the amount of lactose in dairy products, making them more palatable for adults. They were also able to be stored, and were easily transportable.

The researchers conclude that the early adoption of cheese thus not only reduced infant mortality, but also provided extra nutrition for adults and allowed farming communities to expand their ranges.

“This helped stimulate demographic shifts that propelled farming communities to expand and provided the demographic and dietary risk buffering to allow Neolithic farming to spread to colder, temperate climates,” they conclude.

The research is published in the journal PLOS One.