Ancient Cheesemaking and Diversified Dairy Herd in Late Neolithic Poland: New Evidence Uncovered by Archaeologists

In a recent study, evidence has been found for cheesemaking using milk from multiple animals during the Late Neolithic period in Poland. This research suggests that early farmers reduced the lactose content in milk by making it into cheese or other dairy products, such as yogurt, and utilized dairy products from several different animals, including cows, sheep, and goats.

During the Neolithic period until the Late Bronze Age, almost everyone in Europe had lactose intolerance. However, genetic mutations became widespread, enabling adults to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose in the body. The researchers investigated dairy processing during the Late Neolithic period by identifying high curd-content residues in pottery, indicating cheesemaking, and revealing that multiple dairy species were utilized. By using a multi-stranded proteomic and lipid-analysis approach, the scientists and archaeologists from the Universities of York, Cambridge, Toruń, and Kraków investigated ceramics and deposits on their surface from the site of Sławęcinek in central Poland.

This new development provides evidence that cheesemaking (and other curd-enriching dairy processing) can be directly detected by scrutinizing the proportion of curd proteins, by comparing proteomic data. These results are the first of their kind in Europe and contribute significantly to our understanding of the use of dairy products by some of the earliest farmers in Central Europe.

While previous research has shown that dairy products were widely available in some European regions during this period, the present study provides clear evidence for a diversified dairy herd, including cattle, sheep, and goats, from the analysis of ceramics.

Despite widespread lactose intolerance during the Neolithic period, there is evidence of dairy being consumed, 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, a Ph.D. student at Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, said that the proteomic results showed that the ancient residues closely resembled both the modern cheesemaking residues and cheese itself and not whole milk. This reveals that the people of Sławęcinek practiced cheesemaking or another form of curd-enriching dairy processing.

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

Dr. Harry Robson from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York said that these results contribute significantly to our understanding of the use of dairy products by some of the earliest farmers of Central Europe. Furthermore, Dr. Jasmine Lundy from the Department of Archaeology highlighted 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 some techniques waterproof or seal the ceramics, and we could also determine what foods were being produced in them.

Overall, this study provides significant insights into the use of dairy products during the Late Neolithic period in Central Europe and how cheesemaking was practiced using milk from multiple animals. The use of proteomic and lipid-analysis approaches is an innovative and informative method for analyzing ancient residues, and the findings offer valuable contributions to our understanding of the development of food production and consumption in the Neolithic period.

Reference: Evans M, Lundy J, Lucquin A, Hagan R, Kowalski Ł, Wilczyńki J, Bickle P, Adamczak K, Craig OE, Robson HK, Hendy J. Detection of dairy products from multiple taxa in Late Neolithic pottery from Poland: an integrated biomolecular approach. Royal Society Open Science, 2023; 10 (3) DOI: 10.1098/rsos.230124