The Neolithic Stone Age

Bringing History to Life

Tastes Of History’s demonstration of Neolithic cookery and feasting is set around 2,500 BC, at the height of the Stonehenge monument, but on the cusp of the Bronze Age.  This gives us the flexibility to explore hunting, gathering and the domestication and farming of crops and animals some 4,500 years ago.

As part of the much wider spread of agriculture across Europe, domestic animals and plants were first brought to the British Isles about 4,000 BC heralding the start of the Neolithic period (4,000 to 2,200 BC).  By the late Neolithic period (3,000 to 2,300 BC), people in Britain had been farming for over 1,000 years, so they were expert at raising domestic animals for meat and milk.  These products seem to have been the most important elements of the Neolithic diet and economy.  People were also cultivating and processing cereals, such as wheat and barley, although not on a large scale.  The earliest field systems and permanent settlements, for example, date from the Bronze Age, around 1,500 BC.  Late Neolithic people continued to gather wild foods such as mushrooms, berries and plants, and to hunt wild animals.  Their diet was perhaps surprisingly wide and varied.

Cheese production probably appears fairly early after domestication.  The earliest evidence for processing milk comes from the identification of lipids (fats and oils) that had seeped into porous pottery dated to ca. 6,500 BC.  The first concrete evidence of cheese making was found in the Kuyavia region of Poland and is dated to ca. 5,500 BC.  Pottery fragments with small holes in from Kuyavia are reminiscent of later cheese presses or strainers.

With a lack of refrigeration, however, it is most likely that Neolithic people were making yogurt, butter and soft cheeses for more immediate consumption.  Oddly genetic estimates show that the lactose tolerance gene was not prevalent in Neolithic societies, so we are reasonably confident that people in Britain at this time were lactose-intolerant – they did not have the ability to digest raw milk.  Rather usefully, however, the processing of milk into dairy products has the effect of reducing the amount of lactose present to levels enabling humans to digest milk without becoming ill.

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