Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe

Journal name:
Date published:
Published online

The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined1. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium bc and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’10, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids in milk1, 2, 3, 4. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers11, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities6, 7.

At a glance


  1. Drawings of representative reconstructed sieve vessels and photographs of specific sieve fragments from the region of Kuyavia submitted to lipid residue analyses.
    Figure 1: Drawings of representative reconstructed sieve vessels and photographs of specific sieve fragments from the region of Kuyavia submitted to lipid residue analyses.

    a, b, KUY0750, from Brześć Kujawski site 3. c, d, KUY0757 from Smólsk site 4. The typology of the sieve vessels is comparable to those used by modern-day cheese producers (Supplementary Fig. 1). Drawings used with permission from ref. 20.

  2. Partial gas chromatograms of total lipid extracts from typical pottery from Ludwinowo 7 (Poland).
    Figure 2: Partial gas chromatograms of total lipid extracts from typical pottery from Ludwinowo 7 (Poland).

    a, Sieve and bowl: degraded animal fat with a wide distribution of triacylglycerols (sieve LDW0769). b, Cooking pot: degraded animal fat with a narrow distribution of triacylglycerols (LDW1020). c, Collared flask, beeswax (LDW1070) and associated shapes: d, Sieve LDW0769; e, bowl LDW1059; f, cooking pot LDW1039; g, collared flask LDW1074. AL, alkanes; DAG, diacylglycerols; FFA n, fatty acids with n carbon atoms and no double bonds; br, branched; HW, wax hydroxymonoesters; K, mid-chain ketones with 31, 33 and 35 carbon atoms; IS, internal standard (n-tetratriacontane); MAG, monoacylglycerols; OL, alcohols; TAG, triacylglycerols; with M, acyl carbon number; and W, wax monoesters.

  3. Histograms of triacylglycerol distributions and fatty acid carbon isotope compositions of lipids extracted from Kuyavia pottery.
    Figure 3: Histograms of triacylglycerol distributions and fatty acid carbon isotope compositions of lipids extracted from Kuyavia pottery.

    TAG distributions of total lipid extracts of sieves from the region of Kuyavia (including Ludwinowo 7) (a), and cooking pots from Ludwinowo 7 (b). The blue bars denote TAGs present in both adipose and milk fats whereas those in red are only detectable in milk fat. c, d, Plots of the δ13C values for the C16:0 and C18:0 fatty acids prepared from animal fat residues extracted from sieves and cooking pots (see Supplementary Tables 1 and 2). Each data point represents an individual vessel (the orange and yellow data points represent duplicates—of two and four fragments, respectively—of one sieve vessel each). The analytical error (±0.3‰) is approximately the size of the points on the graph. e, f, Δ13C values ( = δ13C18:0δ13C16:0) of the extracts plotted against their δ13C16:0 values from the same potsherds. Ranges show the mean±1 s.d. of the Δ13C values for a global database comprising modern reference animal fats from United Kingdom (animals raised on a pure C3 diet), Africa, Kazakhstan, Switzerland and the Near East2. Significantly, the residues extracted from sieves (c and e) mostly contain dairy fats, whereas cooking pots (d and f) contain ruminant adipose fats. The difference in the Δ13C means is ~2.5‰, which is highly significant (t-test; P<0.0005). The figure clearly demonstrates the presence of dairy residues in sieves from the region of Kuyavia and specialization in pottery use at the Linear Pottery site of Ludwinowo 7.


  1. Evershed, R. P. et al. Earliest date for milk use in the Near East and southeastern Europe linked to cattle herding. Nature 455, 528531 (2008)
  2. Dunne, J. et al. First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium BC. Nature 486, 390394 (2012)
  3. Craig, O. E. et al. Ancient lipids reveal continuity in culinary practices across the transition to agriculture in Northern Europe. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 1791017915 (2011)
  4. Copley, M. S. et al. Direct chemical evidence for widespread dairying in prehistoric Britain. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 15241529 (2003)
  5. Craig, O. E. et al. Did the first farmers of central and eastern Europe produce dairy foods? Antiquity 79, 882894 (2005)
  6. Itan, Y., Powell, A., Beaumont M. A, Burger J & Thomas M. G The origins of lactase persistence in Europe. PLOS Comput. Biol. 5, e1000491 (2009)
  7. Burger, J., Kirchner M, Bramanti B, Haak W & Thomas M. G Absence of the lactase-persistence-associated allele in early Neolithic Europeans. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 37363741 (2007)
  8. Flatz, G. & Rotthauwe, H. W. The human lactase polymorphism: physiology and genetics of lactose absorption and malabsorption. Prog. Med. Genet. 2, 205249 (1977)
  9. McCracken, R. D. Lactase deficiency: an example of dietary evolution. Curr. Anthropol. 12, 479517 (1971)
  10. Bogucki, P. I. Ceramic sieves of the Linear Pottery culture and their economic implications. Oxf. J. Archaeol. 3, 1530 (1984)
  11. Gouin, P. Ancient oriental dairy techniques derived from archaeological evidence. Food Foodways 7, 157188 (1997)
  12. Sherratt, A. in Pattern of the Past: Studies in Honour of David Clarke (eds Hodder, I., Isaac, G. & Hammond, N.) 261 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981)
  13. Hallo, W. W. The house of Ur-Meme. J. Near East. Stud. 31, 8795 (1972)
  14. Houdet, V. Laiterie, Beurrerie, Fromagerie 7th edn (Hachette, 1919)
  15. Poplin, F. L'origine de la production laitière. Initiation à l'Archéologie et à la Préhistoire 17, 1317 (1980)
  16. Wood, J. in Fire as an Instrument: The Archaeology of Pyrotechnologies (ed. Gheorghiu, D.) Vol. 1619, 53 (Archaeopress, 2007)
  17. Clark, J. G. D. Prehistoric Europe: the Economic Basis. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1952)
  18. Kindstedt, P. S. Cheese and Culture: a History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2012)
  19. Bourgeois, G. & Gouin, P. Résultats d'une analyse de traces organiques fossiles dans une ‘faisselle’ harappéenne. Paléorient 21, 125128 (1995)
  20. Grygiel, R. Neolit i Początki Epoki Brązu w Rejonie Brześcia Kujawskiego i Osłonek (The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age in the Brześć Kujawski and Osłonki Region), Vol. I (Konrad Jażdżewski Foundation for Archaeological Research, Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, 2004)
  21. Pyzel, J. in Creating Communities: New Advances in Central Europe Neolithic Research (eds Hofmann, D. & Bickle, P.) 71 (Oxbow books, 2009)
  22. Dudd, S. N. & Evershed, R. P. Direct demonstration of milk as an element of archaeological economies. Science 282, 14781481 (1998)
  23. Charters, S. et al. Quantification and distribution of lipid in archaeological ceramics: implications for sampling potsherds for organic residue analysis and the classification of vessel use. Archaeometry 35, 211223 (1993)
  24. Keeney, M., Katz, I. & Allison, M. J. On the probable origin of some milk fat acids in rumen microbial lipids. J. Am. Oil Chem. Soc. 39, 198201 (1962)
  25. Evershed, R. P. et al. Chemistry of archaeological animal fats. Acc. Chem. Res. 35, 660668 (2002)
  26. Raven, A. M., van Bergen P. F, Stott A. W, Dudd S. N & Evershed R. P Formation of long-chain ketones in archaeological pottery vessels by pyrolysis of acyl lipids. J. Anal. Appl. Pyrolysis 40–41, 267285 (1997)
  27. Heron, C., Nemchek, N., Bonfield K. M, Dixon D & Ottaway B. S The chemistry of neolithic beeswax. Naturwissenschaften 81, 266269 (1994)
  28. Regert, M., Colinart, S., Degrand, L. & Decavallas, O. Chemical alteration and use of beeswax through time: accelerated ageing tests and analysis of archaeological samples from various environmental contexts. Archaeometry 43, 549569 (2001)
  29. Clark, J. G. D. Bees in antiquity. Antiquity 16, 208215 (1942)
  30. Crane, E. The Archaeology of Beekeeping (Cornell Univ. Press, 1983)

Download references

Author information


  1. Organic Geochemistry Unit, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol, Cantock’s Close, Bristol BS8 1TS, UK

    • Mélanie Salque &
    • Richard P. Evershed
  2. School of Engineering and Applied Science, Princeton University, C-207 Engineering Quad, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Peter I. Bogucki
  3. Institute of Archaeology, University of Gdańsk, ul. Bielańska 5, 80-851 Gdańsk, Poland

    • Joanna Pyzel
  4. Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology Polish Academy of Sciences, Centre for Prehistoric and Medieval Research, ul. Rubież 46, 61-612 Poznań, Poland

    • Iwona Sobkowiak-Tabaka
  5. Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography in Łódź, Plac Wolności 14, 91-415 Łódź, Poland

    • Ryszard Grygiel
  6. Poznań Archaeological Museum, Pałac Górków, ul. Wodna 27, 61-781 Poznań, Poland

    • Marzena Szmyt


M.Sa., R.P.E. and P.I.B. planned the project and wrote the paper. M.Sa. performed analytical work and data analysis. P.I.B., J.P., I.S.-T., R.G. and M.Sz. either directed sampling of archaeological material or directed excavations. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

Author details

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (701K)

    This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-2 and Supplementary Tables 1-2.

Additional data