Did the First Farmers of Central and Eastern Europe Produce Dairy Foods?

Article excerpt


In human dietary evolution, the inception of nutritious and storable dairy foods was a significant adaptation. Whether as part of a pastoral or a broader integrated economy, dairying is also economically advantageous, as it provides an extremely efficient means of exploiting ruminant animals (Holmes 1970; Legge 1981). However, the origins of this practice are unclear. One theory is that dairying developed as part of a set of inter-connected innovations, also comprising additional 'secondary products' such as the use of animal traction for ploughing and for the cart, and the production of woollen garments. In this scenario, these innovations are thought to have transformed the economic basis of the Near East in the fourth millennium BC and Europe in the third millennium BC (Sherratt 1981, 1983, 1997: 199-228). Whilst various forms of artefactual evidence do lend support to this hypothesis (Sherratt 1981), critiques of the 'secondary products revolution' have ranged from disputes over chronology (Chapman 1982; Bogucki 1984a), taphonomy (Chapman 1982), subsistence practices (Whittle 1985: 209-10) and ideology (Hodder 1990).

An alternative theory, and one favoured by many critics, is that dairying was an integral part of mixed agro-pastoral practices from a far earlier period. In this scenario dairying is related to the spread of exotic domestic animal species, sheep and goat, from the Near East into Europe during the seventh millennium cal BC and possibly combined with the keeping of locally domesticated cattle (Bokonyi 1974: 28). In the absence of clear artefactual evidence, demonstrating an early origin for dairying is difficult and is further complicated by problems of interpreting fragmented faunal assemblages (Halstead 1998). It has long been recognised that molecular and isotopic analysis of remnant organic matter trapped within the fabric of pottery sherds has the potential to transform dietary and economic investigations of the past (Hodder 1990: 204; Sherratt 1997: 13). Although claims for the detection of milk in pottery have been made since the early 1930s (e.g. Gruss 1933), the specificity of the compounds identified in these early studies is questionable. More recently, compound-specific stable carbon isotopic measurements of mid-chain fatty acids have been used to reliably identify degraded dairy lipids (Dudd & Evershed 1998). Using this method, dairy products have been identified in ceramics dating from the Early Neolithic to Iron Age in the UK (Dudd et al. 1999; Copley et al. 2003), giving support to an early origin of dairying and opening up the possibility of tracing dairy products to some of the earliest European ceramic assemblages. Here, we aim to test the hypothesis that dairying was practised by some of Europe's earliest farming groups by examining a range of pottery vessels from sites dating to the Early Neolithic of central and eastern Europe (5900-5500 cal BC).


Early Neolithic ceramics were obtained from two settlement sites:

1. Schela Cladovei, located on the left bank of the Danube (the Romanian side), downstream of the Iron Gates gorge and occupied during the Mesolithic and Neolithic from 7500 cal BC to 5300 cal BC, with a break in occupation between 6300 and 5950 cal BC (Boroneant et al. 1999; Bonsall et al. 2002). The pottery sampled in this study dates to the Early Neolithic (a late phase of the Starcevo-Cris culture) between 5950 and 5500 cal BC.

2. Ecsegfalva 23, a small Koros culture site in the centre of the Great Hungarian Plain, occupied, most likely permanently, between 5800 and 5700 cal BC (Whittle forthcoming; Whittle 2000; Bronk Ramsey et al. forthcoming). A range of open and closed bowls and necked jars, typical of the Koros culture were sampled (full details in Oross forthcoming).

Both of these sites lie in riverine environments in the Danube basin (Figure 1); the former is located on a river terrace of the Danube, backed by fertile soils, while the latter lies in an area rich in fertile loess soils and where some of the earliest farming communities were established in Europe. …