News / Weird & Wonderful

How long have Croatians loved cheese? 7,200 years, apparently

Pag cheese
© Carly Calhoun/Time Out

Goud(a) news for historians! The oldest evidence of cheese making in the Mediterranean has been found in Dalmatia, Croatia. The newly released evidence, presented by an American study, is among the earliest examples of cheese making in the world. Researchers made the brie-lliant discovery when examining pieces of pottery from the villages of Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj. Initially, their study was investigating ancient Mediterranean food storage, but traces of food fats were found on the pottery and, after testing, led them to believe that this was evidence of some of the earliest cheese production known to man.

The new study, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, marks the first analysis of fat traces on Neolithic pottery in the Mediterranean. Researchers have previously documented milk production in the Mediterranean region extending back almost 6,000 years ago. In what is now modern day Turkey, ancient people were milking animals as far back as 8,500 years ago. But the oldest evidence found of cheese production was made in 2012, when researchers identified cheese making in Poland that dates back 7000 years. However, prior to the discovery in Croatia, the earliest evidence for cheese making in the region came from thousands of years later, in the Bronze Age.

So, what was this ancient Mediterranean cheese like? A ricotta from Rijeka? A gorgonzola from Izola? A less continental Emmental? Or a feta from Sveti Petar? The guess is that it was more like the latter, a fresh but firm cheese, not as soft as a ricotta, something more similar to a farmer’s cheese or a feta.

The study's discovery is significant as it suggests a possible explanation for the expansion of farming populations from the Mediterranean into northern Europe. Milk is a nutritional food source, but genetic data suggests that adults in early farming populations were unable to digest its lactose. It is presumed that, at the time, milk was only used to feed infant humans, who were capable of digesting lactose. Cheese making reduces lactose in milk through the fermentation process and therefore could have enabled adult humans to not only take advantage of the milk of their animals but also to store it for longer. Having a partially preserved food source that could safeguard against the failure of farming in colder Northern Europe, may have allowed early farming populations from the Mediterranean region to expand their territories into more fertile soils to the north. 

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