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Researchers Find World's Oldest Cheese

Feb 27, 2014 09:04 AM EST
Chinese desert
The snow-covered Taklimakan Desert in western China is seen in this NASA handout image taken with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite January 2, 2013. A team of researchers recently analyzed cheese found on the mummies buried in the Tarim Basin and found that the cheese dated back to 1615 BC.
(Photo : REUTERS/NASA/Aqua/Handout )

Researchers have found cheese dating back to 1615 B.C., which is possibly the world's oldest cheese.  The lactose-free cheese was found along Chinese mummies buried in an ancient cemetery in the Taklimakan Desert.

"We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct ... evidence of ancient technology," Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist at Germany's Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and study author, told USA Today The method was "easy, cheap ... It's a technology for the common people."

The site where the mummies and the well-aged cheese were found is called Small River Cemetery Number 5, in northwestern China. The cemetery is located near Tarim Basin. Most of the basin is in Taklimakan Desert, a region known for its unforgiving dry climate. The people buried in the ancient cemetery had European features.

The cheese was found around the necks of mummies buried in upside-down boats.

The dry climate along with salt-filled soil helped preserve the cheese. The mummies were also tightly packed in cowhide, which meant that the cheese was protected from the environment.

Shevchenko and his colleagues analyzed the clumps of cheese and found that it was made by combining milk and a mixture of starter bacteria and yeast, according to USA Today. The technique is even used today to make low-cost kefir cheese, which is a kind of cottage cheese.

Researchers aren't sure why the mummies were buried with cheese. Perhaps, it was food for the afterlife, they said.

The study isn't just important for the well-preserved cheese, but also because it shows that Bronze Age people knew how to make low-cost, lactose-free cheese using starter bacteria.

Today, most cheese is made using rennet, a substance from the guts of a calf. The study also challenges the idea that cheese was invented after humans started carrying milk in bags made of animal skin, according to USA Today.

The study is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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