Cheese is often aged, to allow it to mature and change its taste for the better. You do not, however, ever want to eat any of what have been claimed to be the world’s oldest cheeses. Aged in extremis, they have been found either riddled with harmful bacteria or clinging to Chinese mummies. Delicious, they are not.
It’s now looking that the oldest cheese in the world isn’t actually found in the deserts of North Africa or in China, but rather in what is now Croatia, on the beautiful Dalmatian Coast. Dating back 7,200 years from the present – and predating the last record holder by around 3,800 years – you fortunately can’t even try to eat it, as only traces of its fatty acids were found on the pots it was made in.
The discovery, made by an international team and led by researchers at The Pennsylvania State University, notably hasn’t involved a dramatic reveal of actual cheese. Instead, the team has looked at the idiosyncratic chemical fingerprints left by these fatty acids and, along with historical evidence about agricultural practices at the time, concluded that it is representative of a cheese-making process.
Archaeological data suggest that farming practices began to spread throughout Europe around 9,000 years ago. Some have linked this spread with the development of milk products: its high-calorie count and portability certainly made it a good shout as farmers spread their wings. In a similar vein, cheese would have been ideal, as it keeps for far longer than liquid milk does.
What seemed peculiar is that, despite being very closely linked, milk production was evidenced quite heavily around that time, but cheese production was not. The Mediterranean was only shown to feature the latter around 5,200 years ago. Was everyone missing something?
Fatty acids, found on the inside of a couple of clay pots found within two New Stone Age (Neolithic) villages along the coast of Croatia, proved to be a game-changer. Luckily, as the PLOS ONE study explains, they were yet to have been hosed down during excavation, which preserved plenty of the fatty acids on the potsherds (that’s a shard of ceramics, FYI) for examination.
At the very least, they were indicative of dairy fermentation, but it wasn’t clear to what end. In order to find out, the team carefully looked at the ratio of the heavier isotope, carbon-13, to the lighter carbon-12.
The concentration of either varies depending on whether you have milk or you’ve made cheese. Both soft and hard cheeses, using goat, sheep or cow milk, have proportionally far more protein and fats than lactose in them, and this alters the carbon isotopic ratio.
Without question, the fatty acids, in this case, were from a type of cheese. Radiocarbon dating of carbonized seeds and animal bones confirmed the age of the pots as being 7,200 years old and the rest, as they say, is history.
The team stresses that the use of cheese also makes sense at the time. Populations on the Dalmatian Coast were often lactose intolerant, but children at the very least would benefit from eating cheese, a “high calorie, pathogen-safe, and nutrient-rich source of food.”
Describing childhood as “one of the most dangerous periods in pre-industrial human societies,” the team suspect that the presence of dairy products helped them survive. This would have been especially important as populations migrated to colder climates, where agricultural development would prove to be trickier.
At present, it’s unclear how this mystery cheese was made – but it’s fascinating to think that European civilization may have been built on it. Blessed are the cheesemakers!