Three millenia–old cheese discovered with mummies

A mummy found with hunks of ancient cheese, shown in the inset. // Photo by Y.Liu and Y.Yang

A mummy found with hunks of ancient cheese, shown in the inset. // Photo by Y.Liu and Y.Yang

Scientists determined that yellowish clumps found around the necks and on the chests of mummies unearthed from China’s Taklamakan Desert are actually the oldest known samples of cheese.

The cheese dates back to as early as 1615 BC and owes its preservation to the unique circumstances of burial. According to a report in USA Today, a mysterious Bronze Age people buried dozens of bodies with hunks of the cheese atop a large sand dune inside what appear to be large wooden boats wrapped tightly with cowhide, which in essence vacuum sealed the bodies and the cheese. The dry desert air and the salty soil also contributed to the preservation of the mummies and the cheese.

Interestingly, the cheese is thought to have been formed from milk using a mix of bacteria and yeast and not a rennet, a mix of enzymes found in the guts of ruminants used in culturing modern cheeses. The bacterial process would have made cheesemaking fast and convenient, and yielded a low-lactose cheese (in fact, bacteria and yeast starters are still used today to make kefir cheese).

However, bioarchaeologist Oliver Craig of the University of York thinks its too early to state definitively that the cheese was made using a kefir-like starter rather than a rennet, due to protein degradation. Craig believes further study of animals bones or pottery is necessary to adequately determine how the cheese was made.

Regardless of the process used to make the cheese, the find is remarkable in that it survived over three millenia.

[H/T USA Today]

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