MOL
BEIJING -Plenty of cheeses get better with age, but crumbs discovered on the necks and chests of Chinese mummies are now thought to be the world’s oldest vintage - although their taste may be questionable.
The cheese dates back to 1,615BC and was essentially vacuum-packed with the bodies of the mysterious Bronze Age people who were buried in the Taklamakan Desert, making it the oldest ever recovered. While the strange discovery was made in the 1930s, scientists have only just analysed the proteins and fats in the clumps of 3,600-year-old food to reveal its age and ascertain that it is not butter or milk.
Chemists at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics found that the cheese is a lactose-free variety that was quick to make. It might have been responsible for spreading dairy farming across Asia in the Bronze Age, the said. ‘We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct evidence of ancient technology,’ analytical chemist and study author Andrej Shevchenko told USA Today.
The method of making the cheese was cheap and would have been used by common people, he said. The cheese survived because of the unusual conditions of River Cemetery Number Five in the Takalamn Desert in north western China – the final resting place of the mummies.
They and the cheese were laid to rest on sand dunes near a river under large wooden boats wrapped so tightly in cow-hide that the bodies were essentially vacuum-packed.
The mixture of dry desert air and salty soil preserved the mummies complete with their light brown hair, felt hats and woollen capes as well as delicate leather boots. Some of the mummies were found to have unusual crumbs on their necks and chest, which are now known to be cheese and not butter or milk. t is not known why the people were buried with morsels of cheese on them, but much as other civilisations buried their dead with wine and bread, the mummy’s ancestors might have provided them with cheese for the afterlife.
Analysis of the cheese shows that it was made by combining milk with a mixture of bacteria and yeast, similar to that used to make kefir, which is quite similar to cottage cheese, today. This is unusual as it is thought that people first stumbled across making cheese by carrying milk in bags made of animal guts, which contained rennet that curdled the milk. As the rennet method of making cheese requires the killing of an animal, Dr Shevchenko thinks the vegetarian kefir method proved easier and cheaper for people at the time.
The fact it was so easy and quick meant that it spread the practice of dairy farming across Asia from its origins in the Middle East, according to the study, which will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Fragments of cheese-making strainers in Poland, dating back more than 7,000 years, and 5,000-year-old cheese making tools have previously been discovered in Denmark, proving that our ancestors were partial to a morsel of cheese or two, bioarchaeologist Oliver Craig of the University of York told the publication.
But no crumbs of ancient cheese as old as that found with the mummies have been recovered. Dr Craig is however not convinced as to whether it is possible to confirm that the cheese was made like kefir as the proteins could have decayed too much to be absolutely sure.