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Researchers have identified clumps of well-aged cheese tucked around the necks and chests of Chinese mummies that are up to 3,600 years old. So is this the world's oldest cheese? That depends on what your definition of "cheese" is.
Archaeologists in China collected samples of yellowish material from 10 tombs and mummies at Small River Cemetery No. 5 in northwestern China's Taklamakan Desert. The dry desert conditions contributed to the preservation of the mummies — as well as the textiles and gunky stuff that was packed around them.
Chemists in Germany analyzed the proteins in the clumps and determined that the yellowish material was a type of kefir cheese. The stuff was probably left with the mummies either as a tribute or as food for the afterlife.
The Taklamakan mummies are already notable because they appear to represent a mysterious non-Asian, Bronze Age culture that made its way to China thousands of years ago. It's plausible that they brought their cheese-making ways with them.
The researchers say these are the oldest known specimens of actual cheese (as opposed to milk or butter), but they're not the earliest evidence of cheese-making. Others have reported finding residues of milk fat on 7,500-year-old cheese-making equipment from Poland. Milk residues also have been found in the remains of 8,000-year-old pottery from Turkey's Anatolia region. It's not clear, however, whether those residues came from cheese.
The latest results, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, suggest protein analysis could help solve other archaeological mysteries.
"Our work opens new perspectives in the analysis of ancient material," Andrej Shevchenko of Germany's Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics told Discovery News. "But most importantly, it shows the technology behind ancient cheese-making."
In addition to Andrej Shevchenko, the authors of "Proteomics Evidence for Kefir Dairy in Early Bronze Age China" include Yimin Yang, Anna Shevchenko, Andrea Knaust, Idelisi Abuduresule, Wenying Li, Xingjun Hu and Changsui Wang. Tip o' the Log to Discovery News' Rossella Lorenzi and USA Today's Traci Watson.