Humans love cheese: Oldest evidence of dairy processing found at ancient Croatian site

Cheese. Soft, hard, shredded, melted, sprinkled, drizzled. So many different ways to enjoy this delectable dairy goodness that comes in seemingly endless varieties. The human race loves cheese — and has for a very long time.

Archaeologists have found what could be the oldest example of ancient cheese making known to science. At two sites in Dalmatia, a region that encompasses the southern coast of Croatia, archaeologists found fatty residues inside of pottery. Scientific analysis revealed that the residues came from fermented dairy products, like soft cheeses and yogurts.

How old is the evidence? About 7,200 years old.

“This pushes back cheese making by 4,000 years,” said anthropology professor Sarah McClure.

Evidence of milk consumption at the site dates back 7,700 years, but about 500 years later, it seems there was a shift in dairy preferences. Fermented dairy was found in unique pottery containers, referred to today as Danilo pottery.

“Cheese production is important enough that people are making new types of kitchenware,” said McClure. “We are seeing that cultural shift.”

Evidence of cheese was found on a type of Danilo ware called rhyta, a type of vessel with large openings, long handles, feet, and animal-like shape, and on sieves. Sieves were used in dairy processing to strain treated milk when it separates into curds and whey. The researchers say the sieves suggest the cheese at the site was “like a farmer’s cheese or feta.”

“This is the earliest documented lipid residue evidence for fermented dairy in the Mediterranean region, and among the earliest documented anywhere to date,” the researchers said.

Last month, what might be the oldest solid chunk of cheese ever discovered was found in the tomb of Ptahmes, the mayor of Memphis in Egypt during the 13th century BCE. It’s not as old as the cheese that would have been produced at the Croatian site, but it goes to show how widely spread cheese was in the ancient world.

Cheese may have been huge boon for ancient populations trying to survive and thrive. The availability of cheese and fermented milk reduced infant mortality and allowed for earlier weaning. This meant populations could grow and spread. Cheese was also a storable form of nutrition that adults could enjoy, even in a time when most adults were lactose intolerant, as cheese has less lactose than milk.

Cheesea might not mean the same to us today — it may be more of a nutritious and delicious snack and ingredient in the 21st century CE than a means for advancing society — but make no mistake, we love it just as much as ever.

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