3600 year-old Cheese Found with Chinese Mummies

In a quite astounding recent find, the oldest cheese ever discovered was unearthed, buried in China’s desert sand, strung as part of a necklace the necks and chests of perfectly preserved mummies, which dated as far back as 1615 B.C. These odd looking lumps of yellowish organic material, once analyzed, provided direct evidence for the oldest known dairy fermentation method ever uncovered.

It has long been known, from sites in northern Europe as early as the 6th millennium B.C.  that cheese-making was common, alongside recorded production, during the 3rd millennium B.C., in both Mesopotamia Egypt, though no physical evidence of these processes had ever before been discovered anywhere. The fact that this 3,600-year-old cheese was discovered, in the inhospitable Taklamakan desert in north-western China – during 2002 – 2004 archaeological excavations at the Xiaohe cemetery was significant.

This so-called Small River Cemetery Number 5 – built on a large natural dune and housing hundreds of mysterious mummies with Caucasian features – was first found in 1934, when those involved found the bodies buried in massive wooden coffins that looked like upside-down boats.

Sweden archaeologist Folke Bergman led that group, though recent DNA analysis revealed that the sites contained both European and Asian bodies – the name of the cemetery, Taklamakan literally translates to – go in and you won’t come out – the reason perhaps, in the salty, hyper-dry sands of the area, extremely hot in summer and cold in winter, that such perfect conditions for natural mummification existed there – the process made more possible by the fact of the coffins being covered by several layers of cowhide. This effectively sealed them from air, water and sand.

Thus it was that the skin and hair, remained almost intact, alongside plant seeds, woven grass baskets,, woolen textiles and clumps of organic material, of which 13 samples were collected by the Chinese research team lead by  Changsui Wang from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. Some came from a 3,800-year-old female mummy with Caucasian features known as Beauty of Xiaohe.

Dresden based protein analysis proved the organic matter to be a cheese made by kefir fermentation, and though such analysis is common in medical and biological science, in archaeology it is rare, because such proteins. are difficult to recover from the sample matrix, though on this occasion, the exigent circumstances around the dig site meant that it was finally possible, resulting in this truly astonishing discovery.

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  1. Tony H Leather

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