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The world’s oldest cheese was concealed on the bodies of 3,700-year-old Chinese mummies as an afterlife treat

Stefan Andrews
Photo Credit:Y.LIU AND Y.YANG
Photo Credit:Y.LIU AND Y.YANG

Back in the mid-1930s, a Swedish archaeologist named Folke Bergman stumbled across hundreds of mummified bodies as he traversed the Taklamakan Desert in China, in the northwest part of the country.

After the initial discovery, the mummies were left forgotten until they were rediscovered, thanks to a new effort carried out by a Chinese team of archaeologists in the early 2000s. The bodies were found preserved in pristine condition because of the unusual conditions in which they were buried, laid under some overturned wooden vessels, locked in the skin of an animal.

The salty soils as much as the desert’s arid air helped the preservation process of the mummies, whose identities are unknown; no names were found in the necropolis. These mysterious people of the Bronze Age would have died roughly 3,700 years ago. Their hair was light brown and some of their bodily features were not common among modern Asians.

On the legs, the mummies sported delicate leather boots; their head garments had feathers. Other valued items such as woven baskets were found at the burial site. And an unusual substance collected from their neck and chest proved to be … the oldest cheese ever found on the planet.

Several of the mummies were found to be “wearing” tiny clumps, not even an inch long, of yellowish color. The conclusion that these were ancient dairy products was reached in 2014 after chemists at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, based in Germany, undertook closer inspection. Research suggested that microbes that are normally used to produce kefir could have helped produce this cheese.

The chemical analysis of the dairy product also showed this type of cheese was lactose-free. The ancients would have possibly employed a fast and simple method to produce it, according to experts. The method itself may have had a critical role in spreading the practice of herding and producing dairy products across the Asian continent, they have argued.

“We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct … evidence of ancient technology,” said Dr. Andrej Shevchenko of the Max Planck Institute, who was involved in the study, in an interview with USA Today. He explained that the process of producing such cheese could have come about by mingling milk with a mix of bacteria and yeast, a method that was possibly common knowledge among the ancients.

The cheese itself might have resembled the cottage cheese we consume today. The dairy product miraculously survived the turn of so many centuries due to the exceptional conditions of the desert site where it was found, the River Cemetery Number Five. The mummified bodies along with the yellow clumps were preserved by the desert, the arid air, the wooden covers, and the animal skin, all working together.

The bodies, Dr. Shevchenko said, were “vacuum-packed” for their burial. Not only were the human remains preserved but also the cheese treats left on the chest of the departed, probably as a snack for the afterlife. Archaeologists and historians have been surprised by cheese being the choice of an afterlife snack, but given that other civilizations have used wines or bread to deploy in grave sites, this can work as an explanation.

While scientists have stumbled upon much older evidence of cheese production in the past (reportedly as early as the 6th millennium B.C.), clumps of early-produced cheese products have never been found before. According to Live Science, most of the earlier proof was retrieved from shards of pottery where only leftovers such as fats were preserved.

However, this allowed limited insight into the cheese-making process. The Chinese mummies and their afterlife snacks tell us more.

The entire find from China was unusual, the to say the least, as it has been traditionally believed that the early-cheese makers used bags made from the animals’ guts. This is where the rennet is, which helps the milk to coagulate in another form. Dr. Schevchenko and his team have argued that such a method meant an animal needed to be killed in order to produce cheese-like products. If the ancient people produced cheese with the help of kefir-starters, this could have been a much easier process and more affordable, given that ancient people did count their fortune in the livestock at their disposal.

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The findings from the analyses of the cheese from the mummies in China were subsequently issued in the peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science, in February 2014. The authors have argued that the practice in question would have originally started in the Middle East, and was adopted by others across the Asian continent.

It is also possible that the ancients enjoyed these types of products as a type of probiotic, something which might have also emphasized the importance of herding back then.