Apparently the world has had a love for cheese for far longer than we originally thought.
Archaeologists in China have recently discovered the oldest surviving cheese specimen in history. It has been found underneath the Taklaman Desert and is thought to be have been buried roughly 3,600 years ago. Interestingly, it was attached to the necks and chests of mummies. Hey, even the dead need delicious snacks. The afterlife makes you work up an appetite.
Despite the discovery, this isn’t the first time that the Chinese mummies have been found. They were originally unearthed in 1934 by a Swedish archaeologist who was investigating a 17th century cemetery that had been built on top of the original site. Despite the momentous discovery, it was quickly forgotten, because apparently three-thousand year old mummies were totally commonplace at the time.
It wasn’t until the early 21st century that the burial site was re-discovered by a Chinese expedition that had the added help of GPS. Archaeologists subsequently discovered over 200 mummies who were entombed fully clothed in what appears to be upside down boats. There were also thirteen foot poles included in the graves which are considered to be of phallic significance, because yay penises.
As previously mentioned, there were chunks of yellow cheese attached to the mummies which measured roughly 0.4 to 0.8 inches in diameter. Amazingly, neither the delicious dairy products nor the mummies themselves decayed. This is because of the dry air in the region and the salty soil that they were buried in. Similar to the early Egyptian mummies that were simply buried in the desert, the conditions prevented bacteria from breaking the bodies (and in this case, cheese) down. It’s just too dry.
The discovery of the cheese has proven that the people who made it had knowledge of basic fermenting practices. The Journal of Archaeological Science has even stated:
“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, commented. “[The method was] easy, cheap … It’s a technology for the common people.”
A chemical analysis of the dairy product has revealed that microbes such as Lactobacillus and Saccharomycetaceae yeasts were used to make it. We still use these microbes today to make the popular fermented beverage kefir. Researchers also believe that the cheese was designed for immediate consumption and contained probiotic benefits. Apparently they didn’t need to take Inner Health Plus.
Despite the impressive age of the Chinese cheese, some archaeologists have found potential evidence of the product that date back further. Fragments of possible cheese-making strainers have been discovered in Poland and are thought to be 7,000 years old. There are also Danish pots from 5,000 years ago that may have held butter or cheese. Despite this, researchers can’t absolutely prove that these devices were used for cheese, so for now we’ll have to be content with 3,600.