Dalmatian Coast; earliest Mediterranean cheese production 7,200 years ago

Analysis of fatty residue in pottery from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia revealed evidence of fermented dairy products — soft cheeses and yogurts — from about 7,200 years ago.


The presence of milk in pottery in this area is seen as early as 7,700 years ago, 500 years earlier than fermented products.

About 500 years later a notable ‘cultural shift‘ is recorded, not only from pure milk to fermented products, but also in the style and form of pottery vessels.

The pottery found throughout the area before this shift (Early Neolithic) is called ‘Impressed Ware‘ (meat, fish and some milk residue found in it)

500 years later (in the Middle Neolithic) a pottery style using different technology appears, named “Danilo pottery”, which defines the era in this area and includes plates and bowls.

The researchers looked at such pottery from two sites in Dalmatia (Croatia) — Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj. They tested the pottery residue for carbon isotopes, which can indicate the type of fat and can distinguish between meat, fish, milk and fermented milk products. They used radiocarbon dating on bone and seeds to determine the pottery’s age.

Various Danilo wares were found to contain residue of cheese and fermented dairy products, among others.

Followingly we present selected parts of the relative publication titled “Fatty acid specific δ13C values reveal earliest Mediterranean cheese production 7,200 years ago“, by Sarah B. McClure et al.


Abstract The earliest evidence for cheese production in the Mediterranean is revealed by stable carbon isotope analyses of individual fatty acids in pottery residues from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Lipid residue data indicate the presence of milk in the earliest pottery, Impressed Ware, by 5700 cal. BCE (7700 BP). In contrast, by 5200 cal BCE (7200 BP), milk was common in refined Figulina pottery, meat was mostly associated with Danilo ware, cheese occurred in Rhyta, and sieves contained fermented dairy, representing strong links between specific function and stylistically distinctive pottery vessels. Genetic data indicate the prevalence of lactose intolerance among early farming populations. However, young children are lactase persistent until after weaning and could consume milk as a relatively pathogen-free and nutrient rich food source, enhancing their chances of survival into adulthood. Fermentation of milk into yogurt and cheese decreases lactose content. The evidence for fermented dairy products by 5200 cal BCE indicates a larger proportion of the population was able to consume dairy products and benefit from their significant nutritional advantages. 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.


Introduction Current data on the transition to agriculture in Europe indicates an episodic spread of farming over ca. 3 millennia, starting about 7000 cal BCE. This expansion has been linked with the availability of milk and milk products as a calorie rich, potentially storable food source. Milk production, previously considered a late phenomenon and part of a “secondary products” revolution, was in fact widely used by the earliest farmers in Europe and is documented through multiple lines of evidence including residues on pottery and age-at-death data in ancient domestic animal populations.

Here we report the earliest evidence for cheese production in the Adriatic through residue analysis of pottery sherds from two Neolithic village sites. Lipids document the presence of milk, meat and fish during the Early Neolithic (ca. 6000–5400 cal BCE) and the processing of milk into fermented products including cheese using distinctive pottery wares in the Middle Neolithic (beginning ca. 5200 cal BCE).


Archaeological background Archaeological data from northern Dalmatia indicate that farming with a full commitment to plant and animal husbandry as a subsistence system and sizable villages that persisted for centuries were already in place beginning 8000 years ago. Ongoing research on the earliest farmers of this region has resulted in a high-resolution chronology and detailed analyses of cultural and environmental proxies.

Two villages, Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, were occupied during the Early and Middle Neolithic. Recent excavations unearthed evidence of house structures, large quantities of animal bones, potsherds, stone tools, and other occupational debris. Radiocarbon dates indicate that Pokrovnik was continuously inhabited from 6000–5000 cal BCE, while current evidence for Danilo Bitinj places occupation at 5300–4800 cal BCE.

Pottery is a key artifact of early farming populations in the Adriatic. Early Neolithic farmers initially produced and used Impressed Ware pottery (starting 6000 cal BCE). This pottery is defined by impressed decorations on hand built, globular vessels with rounded bases and range from <5 cm diameter cups to large cooking or storage vessels exceeding diameters of 20 cm. Impresso pottery was made of local clays mixed with quartz or calcite temper, fired in open pits, and decorated with imprints from shells, fingernails, or animal teeth. Chronologically and stylistically similar wares are associated with the earliest farmers throughout the central and western Mediterranean.

αρχείο λήψης

Within a few centuries, Middle Neolithic potters began making a new suite of pottery styles with different decorative and technological methods. The presence of increasing technological refinement in Danilo ceramics defines Middle Neolithic (5400–4900 BCE) pottery in Dalmatia. Typical Danilo pottery included a wide variety of shapes including more open forms such as plates and bowls in addition to the globular jars. Fine wares were smudged, burnished, and decorated with incisions, often in banded ornamentation motifs of interlocking spirals and chevrons. Danilo wares were also made with local clays and fired in open pits, often in a reducing atmosphere. In contrast to Impressed Wares, typical Danilo pottery is distributed more locally in Dalmatia and the northeastern Adriatic.

Three subtypes of pottery are found in the Middle Neolithic. First, figulina, a less common and more refined pottery type, represents up to 5% of pottery assemblages. This ware was crafted by careful processing of local clays to create fine-grained textures. Vessels were fired at high temperatures in oxidizing atmospheres to produce buff-colored wares that were often slipped and painted in decoration. Second, the highly distinctive rhyta, which are common in Middle Neolithic sites but represent a much smaller proportion of the pottery assemblages, are found throughout the Balkans. These footed vessels have a large globular opening to the side and distinctive handles. Often zoomorphic or anthropomorphic in shape, these vessels were usually decorated on all surfaces with fine geometric incisions and fired in reduced or oxidized atmospheres. They were often partially painted and many of the incised decorations have white or red incrustations that highlight the motifs. Finally, the third type of pottery, sieves, are found in Dalmatia from the Middle Neolithic onwards, and are widespread in early farming communities throughout Europe. These vessels tend to be undecorated coarse wares with large numbers of holes punched into the walls.

The shifts in pottery form and refinement though time may have been accompanied by either significant changes or specialization in how the types of ware were used. The newly collected and predominantly unwashed potsherds from two Neolithic sites with long occupations prove a unique means to evaluate the co-development of form and function. Here, residue analyses from the different pottery styles sampled across the occupation series are used to elucidate the emerging importance of dairying by early farmers in Dalmatia. This progression suggests shifting dietary factors may have fostered the spread of farming from the Balkans into central Europe.


Sample description Potsherds from Pokrovnik (n = 27) and Danilo Bitinj (n = 20) consisted of Impressed ware (n = 10), figulina (n = 9), typical Danilo ware (n = 20), rhyta (n = 4), and sieves (n = 4). All samples were collected during recent excavations. The Impressed ware, Danilo, and figulina samples were selected from the unwashed portion of the pottery assemblage from each site. Since rhyta and sieves are relatively rare in pottery assemblages, we selected samples of these pottery types from previously washed assemblages.

AMS radiocarbon dates were determined using bone and carbonized seeds from Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj in order to constrain the ages of associated pottery samples.


Discussion and conclusions This study presents the earliest evidence for cheese production in the Mediterranean region, providing clear data on the antiquity of milk in the early Neolithic and shifting technological practices in the Middle Neolithic linked to the production of cheese. This temporal pattern of emergent cheese production in a single region and at a single site, Pokrovnik, is currently unique.

Ancient DNA analysis indicates that Early Neolithic European farming populations did not possess the lactose tolerance allele that is found in subsequent populations beginning ca. 5000 years ago. The enzyme lactase phlorizin hydrolase (LPH; or lactase) allows young mammals to digest milk by breaking down lactose, the main carbohydrate in milk. As mammals are weaned, lactase production generally declines. In human young, lactase persistence ranges widely from weaning until much later in childhood development [up to >10 years of age.

Lipid residue data indicate farmers at Pokrovnik used milk for ca. 500 years before evidence of fermentation and cheese production, which emerged with an associated ceramic technology of functional differences in pottery manufacture and use. Dairying is well documented elsewhere in the Balkans and indicates a persistent use of milk by the first farmers of Europe.

The evidence for cheese making in the Dalmatian Middle Neolithic is contemporary with the first farmers of central Europe (Linearbandkeramik or LBK) and cheese production is documented in both regions. This chronology indicates that fermented milk products were established dietary supplements by 5300 cal BCE and part of the agricultural package as farming spread into central and northern Europe. Current evidence in the Balkans suggests the scale of dairying and the target species changed during the Neolithic from a focus largely on goats to more cattle and sheep milk later in time as seen in both ceramic lipid analyses and zooarchaeological datasets that reconstruct mortality profiles for domestic animals.

Milk and associated products are also documented among the earliest farmers in other parts of central and northern Europe, based largely on cattle.


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


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