Dairy processing in the Pyrenees began 7,500 years ago

A joint study by researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, the University of Zaragoza, and the University of Strasbourg has provided groundbreaking insights into early Neolithic dietary practices in the Pyrenees. This research, conducted on archaeological materials from the Chaves and Puyascada caves in Huesca, , has revealed the earliest direct evidence of dairy consumption and processing in the region, dating back approximately 7,500 years. The study's findings, published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, challenge previous assumptions that dairy products were not utilized in the Pyrenees until much later periods.

The investigation centered on the analysis of organic residues found in prehistoric ceramic vessels, which serve as crucial indicators of dietary habits and subsistence strategies. Researchers examined materials from the Cueva de Chaves site, situated at an altitude of 640 meters, and Espluga de la Puyascada, located at 1,300 meters above sea level. These sites provided a unique opportunity to explore early Neolithic life in a strictly mountainous region.

The interdisciplinary team, comprising prehistorians from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the University of Zaragoza, along with chemists from the University of Strasbourg, utilized advanced techniques to identify organic residues and characterize isotopic fatty acids. This allowed them to ascertain the animal origins of these residues. The comprehensive analysis included studying the and functionality of ceramic artifacts and conducting archaeozoological examinations of the sites.

The residue analysis of 36 ceramic vessels indicated that dairy products were processed and consumed in the Central Pyrenees 7,500 years ago. The correlation between dairy fat residues and various forms suggests that these processes, including preparation, consumption, and storage, were integral to both settlements.

Lead author Nàdia Tarifa, a researcher from the University of Strasbourg, noted that these findings question the long-held belief that dairy consumption in the Pyrenees began much later. Tarifa emphasized that the study provides robust evidence countering the notion that prehistoric societies in mountainous regions developed more slowly or were less advanced than their coastal counterparts. Previous faunistic studies had already hinted at early dairy farming in these high-altitude areas, and this research solidifies those hypotheses.

The study also uncovered evidence of pig-derived products being processed or stored in ceramic vessels at both sites, highlighting the significance of pigs in early Pyrenean farming economies. However, differences emerged in the exploitation of meat from ruminants and pigs between the two sites. Espluga de la Puyascada showed a predominance of ruminant meat, while Cueva de Chaves had more evidence of pig meat. These variations likely reflect the distinct environmental contexts and meat processing methods employed by the inhabitants of each settlement.

Source: Autonomous University of Barcelona