Archaeologists have unearthed what they believe to be the world’s oldest cheese. The astonishingly well-preserved cheese was buried beneath China's Taklamakan Desert some 3,600 years ago and was affixed to the chests and necks of ancient Chinese mummies – a yummy snack for the dead to nibble on during their journey into the afterlife.
According to Discovery News, the mummies were first discovered in 1934 by a Swedish archaeologist at a 17th-century B.C. burial site known as the Small River Cemetery No. 5, which lies in the barren, dry desert of China’s northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang. But the cemetery’s location was quickly forgotten, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a Chinese expedition, aided by GPS, was able to pinpoint the site’s whereabouts once again.
When archaeologists began to excavate the Bronze Age cemetery, they found 200 or so mummies. The mummies, still wearing the clothes they were buried in, were entombed in upside-down boats and covered in cowhide. Their graves were adorned with large, 13-foot-tall wooden poles with flat blades painted black and red. According to the New York Times, archaeologists believe the polls were mostly phallic symbols.
Attached to the mummies’ necks and chests were chunks of yellow cheese measuring 0.4 to 0.8 inches in diameter. The mummies and their cheese didn’t decay because of the conditions at the burial site. Live Science reports that the dry air and salty soil kept the mummies and the ancient cheese well preserved for thousands of years.
The particular cheese found in Xinjiang was simple to make and showed a knowledge of basic fermenting, according to a study of the world’s oldest cheese published Feb. 18 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
"We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct … evidence of ancient technology," study author Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist at Germany's Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, told USA Today. “[The method was] easy, cheap … It's a technology for the common people."
Scientists gathered 13 samples of the yellow organic cheese and took it to a lab for inspection. A chemical analysis of the cheese revealed that the people who made it used microbes such as Lactobacillus and Saccharomycetaceae yeasts. These are commonly used today to make a popular fermented dairy beverage known as kefir.
Researchers believe the cheese was meant to be eaten immediately and provided probiotic benefits to the guts of these Bronze Age people.
"Despite being extraordinary simple, it possessed the necessary qualities for supporting the economic expansion of ruminant animal herding into Eastern Eurasia," the authors wrote. "The evidence of kefir dairy that occurred already at the Early Bronze Age helps [us] to understand why milking was spreading over Eastern Eurasia despite the lactose intolerance of the local population.”
According to USA Today, archaeologists have previously found fragments of cheese-making strainers in Poland that are more than 7,000 years old. There were also Danish pots from 5,000 years ago that may have held butter or cheese. But archaeologists agree the cheese found in China’s Taklamakan Desert is probably the oldest.