Researchers may have just discovered the place where cheese-making first began, after a new analysis of fatty residue in 7,200-year-old pottery from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia revealed evidence of fermented dairy products, reports Phys.org.
"This pushes back cheese-making by 4,000 years," claimed Sarah B. McClure, one of the researchers on the study.
Interestingly, we know from previous analysis of pottery in this region that milk was being stored as early as 7,700 years ago, which would leave a 500-year span for the culture to develop this into a cheese-making tradition. Furthermore, these dates also correspond with a shift in pottery technology that researchers suspect is related to new needs for storing cheeses.
"Cheese production is important enough that people are making new types of kitchenware," said McClure. "We are seeing that cultural shift."
For instance, around 7,200 years ago, researchers also begin to see a form of pottery known as sieves, which are, incidentally, often used in cheese-making in order to strain treated milk when it separates into curds and whey. Researchers analyzed some of these sieves for residue, and sure enough, three of the four sieves showed evidence of secondary milk processing into either cheese or other fermented dairy products.
"This is the earliest documented lipid residue evidence for fermented dairy in the Mediterranean region, and among the earliest documented anywhere to date," wrote the researchers, in the journal PLOS One.
The analysis relied on testing for carbon isotopes, which can indicate the type of fat contained in the residue, and can distinguish between meat, fish, milk and fermented milk products.
The authors also point out that the fermentation of cheese and yogurt reduce the lactose content of milk products, which would have been useful because previous DNA analysis has revealed that the population along the Dalmatian Coast was actually lactose-intolerant. Transforming milk into cheese would have made this food source palatable for more people, which might provide insight into why cheeses were developed in the first place.