Aged cheese has always been a hot seller in many cheese markets around the world. However, the 5-year-old cheese sold by your friendly neighborhood deli have nothing on these newly discovered 400-year-old lumps of cheese in China.
Researchers working at an excavation site in China have recently uncovered the mummified remains of ancient Bronze age humans. However, the most surprising thing about the excavation site is that small yellow clumps were also found dotting the upper torsos of the mummies. The researchers were initially puzzled with the little yellow clumps until they were positively identified as ancient cheese.
"We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct ... evidence of ancient technology," says Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics In Germany. Shevchenko, who also authored a study on the discovery, said that the manufacturing process used to make the ancient Chinese cheese was "easy, cheap ... It's a technology for the common people."
The clumps of cheese found on the mummies have been dated to be from around 1625 BC, making them the oldest cheese ever found. Archeologists are no strangers to ancient cheese having found stale cheese that have been proven to be a few thousand years old in previous excavations around the world. What is remarkable about the discovery of the cheese in a site known as the Small River Cemetery No. 5 is that the cheese clumps were remarkably well preserved.
The excavation site is located in the Taklamakan Desert in Northwest China. Due to the dry air and the salty conditions in the area, the buried cheese clumps were astonishingly preserved. Researchers working on the excavation site found the mummies buried under wooden structures that were shaped like boats. The scientists also found cow hide in the wooden structures, which may have helped form a "vacuum" seal that could have made the preservation process even more effective.
According to the initial analysis conducted by Shevchenko, the ancient people who made the cheese used a starter culture of yeast and bacteria. Some ancient cheese manufacturing processes use rennet obtained from the guts of young animals. However, the starter culture used in the cheese found in China have low-lactose content, which would have been perfect for many lactose-intolerant ancient Asians at the time. Shevchenko will be publishing his findings at the Journal of Archeological Science in the near future.