The discovery of ancient pottery has revealed cheese was being made in Europe more than 7,000 years ago.
Researchers from Edinburgh were involved in finding Cheese residue on the remains of rhyton drinking horns and sieves dating back to 5200BC.
The fatty acids detected on ceramic fragments from Croatian archaeological sites contain evidence of the earliest known cheese production in the Mediterranean region.
Access to milk and cheese has been linked to the spread of agriculture across Europe starting around 9,000 years ago.
But evidence for cheese production in the Mediterranean has, until now, dated back only as far the beginning of the Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago.
Researchers from Heriot-Watt University, Pennsylvania State University, Rochester Institute of Technology, and the Sibenik City Museum focused their study on organic residues.
These were extracted from early pottery pieces excavated at Pokrovnik, a Neolithic occupation site dated around 6000-4500 BCE.
Dr Clayton Magill, a research fellow at the Lyell Centre, Heriot-Watt University, said: “We’re astounded by this exciting discovery.
“I’m sure cheese-lovers everywhere will be interested to find out more about the origins and the antiquity of their cheese.
“We know that the consumption of milk and dairy products would have had many
advantages for early farming populations because milk, yoghurt and cheese are a good
source of calories, protein and fat.
“They could have even been reliable food between harvests or during droughts and famines.
“Probably the most important fact about our study is that milk or cheese would have been a nutritionally rich food source for young children at a time when early childhood was one of the most dangerous.
“So this rich food source would have helped high-risk populations survive.”
For the new study, researchers analysed stable carbon isotopes of fatty acids preserved on fragments from two Neolithic villages on the Dalmatian coast east of the Adriatic Sea and found direct evidence for much earlier production of cheese.
The two villages, Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, were occupied between 6000 and 4800BC and preserve several types of pottery across that age range.
Dr Magill added: “Our discovery is very meaningful in that early cheese and dairy production was essentially very important for the development of the human race, especially in farming regions.”
Dr Sarah McClure, associate professor of anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University, said: “This research presents the first evidence of cheese production through identified stages of dairy fermentation in functionally specific vessels in the Mediterranean region over 7000 years ago.
“Despite the prevalence of lactose-intolerance among ancient farmers, milk could be
consumed by young children, while fermentation and cheese production allowed adults to digest 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.”
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