Tag Archives: neolithic diet

Neolithic cheese making in Europe.

Neolithic Europeans Made Cheese and Yoghurt
By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News Jan. 24, 2006.

Dirty cooking pots dating to nearly 8,000 years ago reveal that some of Europe’s earliest farming communities produced dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt.

Two separate studies indicate that Neolithic dairying took place in what are now Romania, Hungary and Switzerland.  The discoveries suggest people in these regions might have originally learned how to process milk-based foods from Asian farmers.

“From a diffusionist perspective, these findings lend support to the idea that the antiquity of dairying lies with the origins of animal domestication in southwest Asia some two millennia earlier, prior to its transmission to Europe in the seventh millennia B.C., rather than it being a later and entirely European innovation,” wrote Oliver Craig, a scientist at Tor Vergata University in Rome, and colleagues in the first study published in the journal Antiquity.

Craig and his team studied fatty residues stuck on ceramic cooking vessels found at the left bank of the Danube near Romania and at the Great Hungarian Plain. The dirty pots date from 5,950-5500 B.C. Analysis of the fats suggests they belonged to goat or sheep milk.

Jorge Spangenberg, a geochemist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, indicated to Discovery News that he agreed early dairying took place.

In another paper published in the current Journal of Archaeological Science, Spangenberg and his team conducted a similar study on dirty cooking pot shards found at a site called Arbon Bleiche 3 on the southwestern shore of Lake Constance in Switzerland. The shards date to 3384-3370 B.C.

The Swiss scientists compared the carbon and nitrogen isotope signatures of the residues with those of fats found in today’s organic milks and cheeses. The residue signatures closely matched those for cow, goat and sheep milk.  Since the pots have darkened, sooty undersides from apparent placement over
fires, the researchers believe the milk was cooked and otherwise processed to keep it fresh and consumable.

“Freshly milked milk has a short life,” Spangenberg explained. “After leaving the ruminant (grazing animal) udder, milk quickly becomes colonized with bacteria, mainly lactobacilli. We therefore speculate that the
Neolithic settlers at Arbon were consuming fermented milks and making relatively long-life milk products from fermented milks, such as today’s buttermilk, yogurt, butter and cheese, which could be stored and consumed at much later dates.”

The researchers theorized that the cheese would have been similar to modern fresh goat cheese and farmer’s cheese. Sour cream also likely was produced.

Bones that belonged to domestic cows, pigs, goats, sheep and dogs also were found at the Swiss site where numerous individual family farms appear to have been located around 6,000 years ago.

Stefanie Jacomet, a professor in the Institute for Prehistory and Archaeological Science at Basel University in Switzerland, worked with Spangenberg and Jörge Schibler on the study.

She told Discovery News that the early Europeans likely did not sell or trade their dairy products with outside groups, but instead made them for their own families and communities.

“Based on the herd size, we suggest that this was a subsistence economy, and that the village was not able to produce surplus,” she said.

The villagers seemed to have eaten well, however. In addition to the animal bones, several fish bones also were excavated at the site, along with evidence for hazelnuts, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, crab apples and sloe plums.

In terms of dairying, little seems to have changed.

Spangenberg said, “Currently there are still approximately 24,000 farms in the Lake Constance region, most of them with dairy cows.”

Along with the study the news item mentions..

Chemical analyses of organic residues in archaeological pottery from Arbon Bleiche 3, Switzerland : evidence for dairying in the late Neolithic

Fatty acids distribution and stable isotope ratios (bulk δ13C, δ15N and δ13C of individual fatty acids) of organic residues from 30 potsherds have been used to get further insights into the diet at the Late Neolithic (3384-3370 BC) site of Arbon Bleiche 3, Switzerland. The results are compared with modern equivalents of animal and vegetable fats, which may have been consumed in a mixed ecology community having agrarian, breeding, shepherd, gathering, hunting, and fishing activities. The used combined chemical and isotopic approach provides valuable information to complement archaeological indirect evidence about the dietary trends obtained from the analysis of faunal and plant remains. The small variations of the δ13C and δ15N values within the range expected for degraded animal and plant tissues, is consistent with the archaeological evidence of animals, whose subsistence was mainly based on C3 plants. The overall fatty acid composition and the stable carbon isotopic compositions of palmitic, stearic and oleic acids of the organic residues indicate that the studied Arbon Bleiche 3 sherds contain fat residues of plant and animal origin, most likely ruminant (bovine and ovine). In several vessels the presence of milk residues provides direct evidence for dairying during the late Neolithic in central Europe.


Cattle dairying at least 6,000 years old in Europe.

Direct evidence for the existence of dairying farms in prehistoric Central Europe (4th millennium BC).

Spangenberg JE, Matuschik I, Jacomet S, Schibler J.

Institute of Mineralogy and Geochemistry, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.

The molecular and isotopic chemistry of organic residues from archaeological potsherds was used to obtain further insight into the dietary trends and economies at the Constance lake-shore Neolithic settlements. The archaeological organic residues from the Early Late Neolithic (3922-3902 BC) site Hornstaad-Hornle IA/Germany are, at present, the oldest archaeological samples analysed at the Institute of Mineralogy and Geochemistry of the University of Lausanne. The approach includes (13)C/(12)C and (15)N/(14)N ratios of the bulk organic residues, fatty acids distribution and (13)C/(12)C ratios of individual fatty acids. The results are compared with those obtained from the over 500 years younger Neolithic (3384-3370 BC) settlement of Arbon Bleiche 3/Switzerland and with samples of modern vegetable oils and fat of animals that have been fed exclusively on C(3) forage grasses. The overall fatty acid composition (C(9) to C(24) range, maximizing at C(14) and C(16)), the bulk (13)C/(12)C and (15)N/(14)N ratios (delta(13)C, delta(15)N) and the (13)C/(12)C ratios of palmitic (C(16:0)), stearic (C(18:0)) and oleic acids (C(18:1)) of the organic residues indicate that most of the studied samples (25 from 47 samples and 5 from 41 in the delta(13)C(18:0) vs. delta(13)C(16:0) and delta(13)C(18:0) vs. delta(13)C(18:1) diagrams, respectively) from Hornstaad-Hornle IA and Arbon Bleiche 3 sherds contain fat residues of pre-industrial ruminant milk, and young suckling calf/lamb adipose. These data provide direct proof of milk and meat (mainly from young suckling calves) consumption and farming practices for a sustainable dairying in Neolithic villages in central Europe around 4000 BC.dagger.

However, it seems that sheep and goat dairying practises predate this. I was wondering how the gene for lactase persistence could have spread without a milk drinking culture, then the light finally dawned and I realised that goats made it into Northern Europe a lot earlier!

Trent woman.

Stone age diet.

Grain and agricultural implements have, of course, been found at Neolithic sites in Britain. The isotope results do not rule out some limited grain production and consumption; but they suggest it did not form a significant portion of the diet. The sites where grain has been found generally seem to have been used mainly for ritual purposes, and it is possible (as archaeologists such as Richard Bradley and Julian Thomas have argued) that in Britain, on the edge of Europe, grain was grown, or even imported from the continent, only for ritual purposes. Agricultural implements may also have assumed a largely ritual significance.

Mike Richards is a PhD student at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology in Oxford.

There are, however, potential difficulties with stable isotope analysis. The main concern is whether the animal stable isotope data used as a benchmark are accurate for the specific British Neolithic sites tested. In the study, we took `average animal values’ from a large database, held at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, covering all Europe over the past 10,000 years. It may be that there are regional variations in plant and animal isotope values of which we are, as yet, unaware. Research, however, continues – and if our preliminary results are confirmed, we may be able to scrap the notion of Neolithic agriculturalists in Britain once and for all.

So what, then, was the Neolithic economy based on? Animal remains from Neolithic sites are generally of domestic species (eg, cattle and pig) rather than wild, and cattle from Neolithic sites such as Hambledon Hill in Dorset are actually larger than the cattle typically found in the Iron Age. This evidence may suggest an animal-dependent economy – indeed, one in which animals were well treated and kept for a long time – and, as the Neolithic specialist Andrew Sherratt has suggested, the British Neolithic may have been characterised by a `secondary products revolution’, with animal husbandry and an emphasis on animal milk and cheese, instead of by an `agricultural revolution’ and the growing of crops.

The 7,700-year-old woman who ate like a wolf
The thighbone of a woman who died about 7,700 years ago, found in a dried-up channel of the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, has undermined some of the cherished clichés of the Mesolithic era. The poor lady, it seems, never saw the sea, and never ate a shellfish or perhaps even a hazelnut in her life.It is sometimes argued that Mesolithic people in Britain generally stuck to the coastlines, while the ubiquitous hazelnuts and shellfish shells found at campsites have produced a standard view of Mesolithic diet. The Lady of the Trent, by contrast, ate almost nothing but meat – and none of it came from the sea.Stable isotope analysis – a laboratory technique for measuring the source of protein in bone – conducted by Mike Richards of Bradford University found that the woman’s diet was virtually as meat-rich as that of a carnivorous wild animal. Nitrogen levels were measured as 9.3, on a scale running from herbivore cattle at 6 to carnivore wolves at about 10. Carbon levels showed that her diet had been purely terrestrial, involving no marine food.

A number of human bones from the Iron Age and from Romano-British sites were also tested, and their isotope values were a little higher than those of herbivores. This is as we might expect, as there is little doubt that in these periods people practised relatively intense cereal agriculture, and only supplemented their diet with meat. The Neolithic results, however, were surprisingly different. They were as high, and sometimes even higher, than stable isotope values of carnivores. This suggests the Neolithic people had relatively little plant food in their diet and instead were consuming large amounts of meat. It could also mean they were eating a lot of animal by-products, like milk and cheese, as these are indistinguishable from meat itself using stable isotopes.

Close to the thigh bone, archaeologists found a group of butchered Mesolithic animal bones, including aurochs, roe deer and otter. Elsewhere, in a river channel dating to the Bronze Age, a cut-marked deer antler was found which had been used as raw material for tools.

The bone, radiocarbon dated to between about 5735-5630 BC, was excavated from a gravel quarry at Staythorpe near Newark by Glyn Davies of the Sheffield University-based unit, ARCUS. Mesolithic human bones are exceptionally rare in Britain, and its discovery in a former channel of the Trent may lend support to the theory that bodies were disposed of in ‘sacred’ rivers – either floated on rafts or thrown directly into the water. A collection of Neolithic skulls was found in the Trent a few years ago.


by Mike Richards

British Archaeology, No. 12, March 1996: Features

`First farmers’ with no taste for grain The Neolithic period is traditionally associated with the beginning of farming, yet in Britain – by contrast with much of the rest of Europe – the evidence has always been thin on the ground. Where are the first farmers’ settlements? Where are the fields?

The almost complete absence of this kind of evidence has led some archaeologists, over recent years, to question the view that people in Britain actually grew most of their food in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. Now, a scientific study of Neolithic human bone seems to point in the same revisionist direction.

The small-scale study – the first of its kind – of the bones of about 23 Neolithic people from ten sites in central and southern England, suggests that these `first farmers’ relied heavily on animal meat for food, or on animal by-products such as milk and cheese, and that plant foods in fact formed little importance in their diet. The bones date from throughout the Neolithic, c 4100BC – c 2000BC.

The study was based on the idea that our bodies are made up of organic and inorganic components derived from the foods we have eaten. There are a number of ways of tracing the original food source of some of our tissues, and one way is to look at the relative ratios of certain elements, known as `stable isotopes’, in bone protein.

These stable isotopes can tell us a number of things about what a person’s diet has been for most of their life. One particular isotope can tell us whether humans were getting most of their food from plant or animal sources. Generally speaking, this is done by comparing human isotope values to animal isotope values. If the human values are more like that of a herbivore (eg, horses or cattle) they are eating a great deal of plant food, and if they are more like carnivores (eg, wolves or foxes), they are eating more meat.

This guy has missed a trick somewhat. It’s very likely they were using the grain to brew ale.