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World's Oldest Cheese Contender Found in Egyptian Tomb


Aging usually improves the flavor of cheese, but that's not why some very old cheese discovered in an Egyptian tomb is drawing attention. Instead, it's thought to be the most ancient solid cheese ever found, according to a study published in ACS' journal Analytical Chemistry.

The tomb of Ptahmes, mayor of Memphis in Egypt during the 13th century BC, was initially unearthed in 1885. After being lost under drifting sands, it was rediscovered in 2010, and archaeologists found broken jars at the site a few years later. One jar contained a solidified whitish mass, as well as canvas fabric that might have covered the jar or been used to preserve its contents. Enrico Greco and colleagues wanted to analyze the whitish substance to determine its identity.

Four pillars from the Tomb of Ptahmes in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, the Netherlands. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Four pillars from the Tomb of Ptahmes in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, the Netherlands. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

After dissolving the sample, the researchers purified its protein constituents and analyzed them with liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. The peptides detected by these techniques show the sample was a dairy product made from cow milk and sheep or goat milk.

The characteristics of the canvas fabric, which indicate it was suitable for containing a solid rather than a liquid, and the absence of other specific markers, support the conclusion that the dairy product was a solid cheese. One presumes meaning the contents were not some spreadable cream cheese, a cheese dip or some sort long out of fashion Egyptian cheese drink! The truth is we don’t know exactly what cheese was like back then, but as solid (and salted) cheese was the best way to preserve milk, the solid form was a good bet. Now we have evidence to support that there were certainly forms of cheese that were solid at this time.

Cheesy beginnings

According to an AO article by April Holloway, there is evidence of cheese making going back 8,000 years, in the form of strainers thought to be used for this purpose found in Poland. There are also some Danish pots which seem to have held a milk product (cheese or butter perhaps) that date back 5,000 years. But as for actual pieces of cheese, they are not surprisingly few and far between.

Until the beginning of 2014, the oldest piece of cheese known was a youthful 117, reported AO reported. Then there was a momentous breakthrough in cheese history. What was determined by the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics as actual clumps of cheese were found around the necks of some of the 3,600-year-old Chinese Tarim Basin mummies, smashing the previous pultry record by eons. Nothing anywhere near it had been detected before.

Now the latest find is being touted by the headlines as the oldest, although the study only states this as ‘probably’. The tomb being from the 13 th century BC puts the oldest this cheese could be at around 3,300 years old. This falls short of the 3,600-year-old Chinese cheese that is already on record as the oldest…for now.

Graffic representing the find and the analysis. Image: Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

Graffic representing the find and the analysis. Image: Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

Diseased cheese

Other peptides in the food sample from the tomb suggest it was contaminated with Brucella melitensis, a bacterium that causes brucellosis. This potentially deadly disease spreads from animals to people, typically from eating unpasteurized dairy products. If the team's preliminary analysis is confirmed, the sample would represent the earliest reported biomolecular evidence of the disease.

Top image: French Cheeses. Source: CC BY-SA 4.0

The original article titled, ‘World’s Oldest Cheese Found in Egyptian Tomb,’ was first published on Science Daily.

Source: American Chemical Society. "World's oldest cheese found in Egyptian tomb." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 August 2018.


Enrico Greco, Ola El-Aguizy, Mona Fouad Ali, Salvatore Foti, Vincenzo Cunsolo, Rosaria Saletti, Enrico Ciliberto. Proteomic Analyses on an Ancient Egyptian Cheese and Biomolecular Evidence of Brucellosis. Analytical Chemistry, 2018; DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.8b02535

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