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The Beauty of Xiaohe

Oldest cheese in the world found around the neck of The Beauty of Xiaohe

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Unusual clumps of an unknown material found on the necks and chests of the famous Chinese mummies of the Tarim Basin have now been revealed to be the world’s oldest cheese, dating back an incredible 3,600 years. Due to the rapid rate of decay of dairy products, it is extremely unusual to find cheese of this age – until now, the oldest piece of preserved cheese was 117-years-old.

It is already know that humans have been making cheese for at least 8,000 years as archaeologists have found fragments of cheese-making strainers in Poland dating back this far, as well as Danish pots from 5,000 years ago that held either butter or cheese. However, the discovery of actual pieces of cheese is truly unique.

The mysterious clumps found on the mummies were analysed at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. By analysing the proteins and fats in these clumps, it was determined that the material was a lactose-free variety of cheese that would have been quick and easy to make and may have played a role in the spread of herding and dairying across Asia.

"We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct … evidence of ancient technology," said study author Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist at the Institute.

The cheese was found on the well-known Tarim Basin mummies, including ‘Tarim basin mummies’ (depicted in the featured image), so named because of her amazingly preserved stately facial features that have remained quite beautiful even in death.

The Beauty of Loulan

The Beauty of Xiaohe

The mummies were discovered in the Taklamakan Desert, in the Tarim Basin of China, close to the trade route known as the Silk Road. The natural dryness and salty soil preserved The Beauty of Xiaohe and over two hundred other mummies, individuals who had lived in several closely located settlements along the trade route. Their discovery caused a huge stir in China due to their racial identity. The Tarim mummies are Caucasian and this fact has given credence to the claims of the local peoples, the Uyghur, who look more European than Asian that they are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the area and not later arrivals, as Chinese history claims.

It's not clear why the mummies were buried with bits of cheese on their bodies, Shevchenko said, though he suggested that it may have been left as food for the afterlife.

The analysis, which is reported in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, showed the mummies' cheese was made by combining milk with a "starter," a mix of bacteria and yeast. This technique is still used today to make kefir, a sour, slightly effervescent dairy beverage, and kefir cheese, similar to cottage cheese. This contradicts the belief that cheese was invented by accident when humans began carrying milk in bags made of animal gut and the rennet from the gut curdled the milk. Rather, it appears the cheese-makers knew exactly what they were doing when they combined the ingredients together.

Featured image: Clumps of cheese were found on the neck of this mummy from an ancient burial ground in the Chinese desert. Photo credit: Wang da Gang

By April Holloway



So it is official...dairy IS good for you!

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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