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27 January 2006
Neolithic Europeans made cheese and yogurt

Dirty cooking pots dating to nearly 8,000 years ago reveal that some of Europe's earliest farming communities produced dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt. Two separate studies indicate that Neolithic dairying took place in what are now Romania, Hungary and Switzerland. The discoveries suggest people in these regions might have originally learned how to process milk-based foods from Asian farmers.
     "These findings lend support to the idea that the antiquity of dairying lies with the origins of animal domestication in southwest Asia some two millennia earlier, prior to its transmission to Europe in the seventh millennia BCE, rather than it being a later and entirely European innovation," wrote Oliver Craig, a scientist at Tor Vergata University in Rome, and colleagues in the first study published in the journal Antiquity.
     Craig and his team studied fatty residues stuck on ceramic cooking vessels found at the left bank of the Danube near Romania and at the Great Hungarian Plain. The dirty pots date from 5,950-5500 BCE. Analysis of the fats suggests they belonged to goat or sheep milk.
     Jorge Spangenberg, a geochemist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, conducted a similar study on dirty cooking pot shards found at a site called Arbon Bleiche 3 on the southwestern shore of Lake Constance in Switzerland. The shards date to 3384-3370 BCE. The Swiss scientists compared the residues with those of fats found in today's organic milks and cheeses. The residue signatures closely matched those for cow, goat and sheep milk.
     Since the pots have darkened, sooty undersides from apparent placement over fires, the researchers believe the milk was cooked and otherwise processed to keep it fresh and consumable. "Freshly milked milk has a short life," Spangenberg explained. "We therefore speculate that the Neolithic settlers at Arbon were consuming fermented milks and making relatively long-life milk products from fermented milks, such as today's buttermilk, yogurt, butter and cheese, which could be stored and consumed at much later dates." The researchers theorized that the cheese would have been similar to modern fresh goat cheese and farmer's cheese. Sour cream also likely was produced.
     Bones that belonged to domestic cows, pigs, goats, sheep and dogs also were found at the Swiss site where numerous individual family farms appear to have been located around 6,000 years ago. Stefanie Jacomet, a professor in the Institute for Prehistory and Archaeological Science at Basel University in Switzerland, worked with Spangenberg and Jörge Schibler on the study. She said that the early Europeans likely did not sell or trade their dairy products with outside groups, but instead made them for their own families and communities. The villagers seemed to have eaten well, however. In addition to the animal bones, several fish bones also were excavated at the site, along with evidence for hazelnuts, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, crab apples and sloe plums.

Source: Discovery News (23 January 2006)

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