Scientists may have discovered the world’s oldest cheese on the bodies of 3,800-year-old mummies buried in China’s Taklamakan Desert.
The mummies were buried with clumps of cheese, presumably a snack for them to enjoy in the afterlife.
This particular cheese was simple to make, nutritious and easily digestible, researchers said in a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
They unearthed the cheese during excavations of the Xiaohe Cemetery, also known as Ordek’s necropolis, between 2002 and 2004, ‘LiveScience’ reported.
The ancient necropolis was first discovered in a sand dune located by a dried-up riverbed in 1934. It contains hundreds of mummies buried in large, wooden coffins that resembled upside-down boats, which were then covered with cowhide that sealed the coffins from the air.
Researchers found 1 to 2 centimetres clumps of a yellowish substance in several tombs, adorning the necks and chests of the mummies, which had Eurasian features.
A chemical analysis found that the ancient dairy product didn’t require an enzyme, known as rennet, which is found in the guts of ruminants and is used to make hard cheeses such as cheddar. Instead, makers likely fermented this cheese using microbes such as Lactobacillus and Saccharomycetaceae yeasts, which are commonly used to make a still-popular fermented dairy beverage known as kefir.
The team also made their own homemade kefir, and found that the chemical and bacterial composition matched the snacks buried with the mummies.
“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,” the authors wrote in their paper.