There has been circumstantial evidence of cheese production technology in ancient Turkey and Africa, where 7,000 year old clay jars have been found coated with the residues of dairy products once stored within them. The jars could have held stored milk, but it was unlikely both because milk goes bad quickly whereas purposely curdled dairy products such as yogurt and cheese last longer, and because humans had not yet developed the bacteria to process raw milk. However cheese production in these areas can only be inferred, since food items, especially proteins seldom survive to be found in the archaeological record. Now, the technology of ancient cheese-making has been proven in China.
Taklamakan Desert in China is one of the driest and saltiest environments on Earth. This circumstance has not only produced mummies in an ancient necropolis called Xiaohe, but also preserved actual pieces of cheese that were left with the buried dead approximately 3,800 years ago. The cheese, made into necklaces to be worn by the deceased, was of a kind that unlike most modern hard cheeses, did not require the slaughter of livestock to produce.
Hard cheeses like cheddar are made by curdling milk with an enzyme that comes from rennet, the lining of a calf intestine. The milk is strained through the rennet and comes out the other side curdled and ready to be made into the curds that are pressed into cheese molds. This ancient cheese, however, was made with a much easier and less resource-dependent technology, one still in use today in the area. The cheese, called kefir, is made by hanging milk in a skin bag and striking it occasionally to help the bacteria living within it to move around and culture with the other milk particles inside the container. The kefir “grains” produced can be transferred to other milk to continue the process.
The cheese, yogurt, and “cottage” style cheeses produced by the kefir process stay preserved for shorter periods than later rennet-based cheeses, but are good for quick on the go protein snacks. The evidence of ancient cheese production in Africa and Turkey is likely to be of the same kind of cheese, since it would have been the simplest way to produce these dairy products in ancient times. Many archaeologists believe that, due to dating in the areas where evidence of cheese production was found, the discovery that humans could make a digestible food from milk might have jump-started cultures and economies in the areas where the technology produced. The technology of ancient kefir cheese-making, though, has been proven for a certainty only in China.
Since evidence of the use of kefir cheese has been found and still exists all across Eurasia and is commonly used in as far-flung areas as ancient Denmark, the Caucasus and Tibet, it is possible that this group of burials, with their mixed Asian and European features, were at the center of a trade network that grew up around the easily digested, high-energy food. The fact that these bits of cheese were the only food items to have been placed with the dead shows the importance of this portable, high protein food in the culture that existed here, and possibly explains the evidence of a sedentary culture in the area.
Burials don’t often continue in the same place long enough to form a 200 mummy graveyard or necropolis unless the people in the area live nearby on a consistent basis. With the discovered benefits of dairy technology, the people who were buried in Xiaohe were likely to have developed an at least partially sedentary community nearby which was based to a great extent on the keeping of milk-bearing herd animals.
The cheese samples were so well-preserved that the team who discovered them was able to chemically test the proteins and lipids in the food “necklaces” in order to record their exact chemical make-up and to extrapolate the type of kefir bacteria that were used to produce the dairy products eaten in the culture.
The Bronze Age site, originally called “Small River Cemetery Number Five,” is next to a dry riverbed, and abounds with water-based symbolism as well as the dairy component. It is possible, based on the animal-skin-covered, boat-like coffins in which the mummies were placed that this culture also had a river-based element, or once had before the advent of the dairy technology replaced a riverine economy. The red and black bladed poles placed around the boat-like graves may have been symbolic oars. However, the woolen clothing and the cowhide on the burial boats definitely points to the importance of a cattle-based economy in the region. The technology of cheese-making has been proven in to have been an important aspect of life in this part of Ancient China.
By Kat Turner