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Neolithic Ceramics Reveal Dairy Processing from Milk of Multiple Species

Study highlights the utility of using proteomic and lipid analysis to study ancient cheese making

by University of York
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A new study has found evidence of cheese making, using milk from multiple animals in Late Neolithic Poland.

The research suggests that early farmers reduced the lactose content in milk by making it into cheese or other dairy products like yogurt, and used dairy products from a number of different animals, such as cows, sheep, or goats.

Lactose intolerance was a common condition in almost everyone in Europe during the Neolithic and until the Late Bronze Age when the genetic mutation became widespread, enabling adults to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose in the body.

Researchers looked at the practice of dairy processing in the Late Neolithic, identifying high curd-content residues in pottery indicating cheese making, and revealing that multiple dairy species were utilized.

Dr. Harry Robson, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: “These results contribute significantly to our understanding of the use of dairy products by some of the earliest farmers of Central Europe. 

“Whilst previous research has shown that dairy products were widely available in some European regions during this period, here, for the first time, we have clear evidence for a diversified dairy herd, including cattle, sheep, and goats, from the analysis of ceramics.”

The scientists and archaeologists from the Universities of York, Cambridge, Toru?, and Kraków used a multi-stranded proteomic and lipid-analysis approach to investigate ceramics and deposits on their surface, from the site of S?awęcinek in central Poland.

The new development provides evidence that cheese making (and other curd-enriching dairy processing) can be directly detected by scrutinizing the proportion of curd proteins, by comparing proteomic data. The results are also the first of their kind in Europe. 

Despite widespread lactose intolerance in the period, there is evidence of dairy being consumed during the Neolithic, such as animal bones with kill patterns expected for dairy herds, dairy lipids in ceramic vessels, and dairy proteins in ancient dental calculus or plaque. 

Lead author, Miranda Evans, PhD student at Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, said: “The proteomic results showed that the ancient residues closely resembled both the modern cheese making residues and cheese itself and not whole milk. This reveals that the people of S?awęcinek practiced cheese making or another form of curd-enriching dairy processing.”

Evidence of multiple species used for cheese making was backed up by the presence of both cow and sheep or goat bones on the site.”

Dr. Jasmine Lundy from the Department of Archaeology, said: “This study highlights how complementary lipid and proteomic analyses are, particularly in understanding the use of the ceramic vessel over time. From this, for example, we could see that not only did some techniques waterproof or seal the ceramics but also what foods were being produced in them.”

- This press release was originally published on the University of York website