A team of researchers have discovered the world’s oldest cheese on Chinese mummies. The cheese was found during an excavation of an ancient cemetery in Northwestern China.
Researchers say the cheese may date back to 1615 B.C., making it the oldest cheese found with little competition. 7,000-year-old cheese-strainers in Poland and 5,000-year-old pots containing dairy products in Denmark have also been found, but bioarchaeologist Oliver Craig of the University of York in Britain says the cheese in China is by far the oldest.
The cheese was found in mummified graves in Small River Cemetery Number 5, a site found by a Swedish archaeologist in the 1930s. The site was not dug into until recently, when bits of cheese were found on the bodies. The deceased were placed in what appeared to be upside down boats, coated tightly with cowhide.
The Taklamakan Desert, where the find occurred, is one of the largest and driest in the world. With help from an extremely dry atmosphere, the cowhide covers created a vacuum-like effect preserving not only the cheese, but the boots, hair and clothes of the mummies. Researchers were unsure why this old cheese was discovered inside the Chinese mummies’ graves. Speculation leads them to believe it may have been food for the afterlife.
The find has numerous implications for the scientific community. The cheese was found to be made by milk and “kefir starter,” a combination of bacteria and yeast. Milk today is made from the innards of young calves, called “rennet.” Previously it was believed the first cheese was made by accident, by people carrying milk in bags made from my animal hides.
Andrej Shevchenko, an analytic chemist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, and author of the study argues, by the evidence of the discovery, that the making of this cheese was intentional by the people of the Bronze Age. “We [have] not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese,” he said, ” but we also have…evidence of ancient technology.”
Since the making of cheese with rennet requires killing an animal, Shevchenko argues the Bronze Age people instead used kefir starter as an easy and inexpensive way to create food. He says this may explain why the spread of herded animals rose in Asia during this time, from their Middle Eastern origins. Additionally, the kefir starter makes low-lactose cheese, which would have been easier for the Asian inhabitants consuming it, who had sensitivity to lactose.
Still others argue more tests will have to be done to determine whether the cheese was made with kefir starter or rennet. Bioarchaeologist Oliver Craig says the decay of proteins makes it difficult to determine the ingredients of the cheese. He suggested the analysis of nearby pottery or animal bones to solidify Shevchenko’s argument. “It’s…amazing it survived,” he added.
The study authored by Shevchenko is to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The cheese discovered on the Chinese mummies now holds the record for the world’s oldest cheese, and competition is nowhere in sight.
By Erin P. Friar