Residue on 7,200 year old pottery found in Croatia has pushed back the dawn of cheese making in the Mediterranean.
The find resets the timeline of agriculture in the region, with fermented dairy products being made a mere five centuries after milk was first stored. But its innovation was more than just a culinary milestone for dairy connoisseurs – it could have been a life saver.
“Consumption of milk and dairy products would have had many advantages for early farming populations,” the researchers write in PLOS One. Although many early farmers were lactose intolerant, “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.”
Fermenting milk to make dairy products such as yogurt and cheese reduces its lactose content. The evidence of dairy, the researchers explain, supports the belief that a significant percentage of the population was able to eat dairy products and benefit from cheese’s portability and nutrients. The resulting drop in infant mortality, they write, “helped stimulate demographic shifts that propelled farming communities to expand to northern latitudes.”
The ceramics are called "rhyta" (singular: rhyton)