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

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Abstract

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.

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Figure 1: Drawings of representative reconstructed sieve vessels and photographs of specific sieve fragments from the region of Kuyavia submitted to lipid residue analyses.
Figure 2: Partial gas chromatograms of total lipid extracts from typical pottery from Ludwinowo 7 (Poland).
Figure 3: Histograms of triacylglycerol distributions and fatty acid carbon isotope compositions of lipids extracted from Kuyavia pottery.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the 7th EU framework Marie Curie Initial Training Networks (FP7-ITN-215362-2) for a Ph.D. studentship to M.Sa and the UK Natural Environment Research Council for mass spectrometry facilities.

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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.

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Correspondence to Richard P. Evershed.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Salque, M., Bogucki, P., Pyzel, J. et al. Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe. Nature 493, 522–525 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11698

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