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Archaeologists Find World's Oldest Cheese Buried With Chinese Mummies

Update Date: Feb 28, 2014 09:15 AM EST

Archaeologists have found the world's oldest cheese on the necks and chests of mummies buried in China's desert sand. The lumps of yellowish organic material date back as early as 1615 B.C..

The finding is a direct evidence for the oldest known dairy fermentation method. According to the researchers, there were buried with the cheese so they could savor it in afterlife. 

Prior to this discovery, cheese-making was known from sites existing in northern Europe and dated back to 6th millennium B.C.. It was also common in Egypt and Mesopotamia in 3rd millennium B.C..

The 3,600-year-old cheese was discovered at the Xiaohe cemetery situated in the Taklamakan desert in northwestern China. The burial, known as Small River Cemetery Number 5 was first discovered by a Sweden archaeologist Folke Bergman. 

"Recent DNA studies showed the population of these sites was mixed, European and Asian," Anna Shevchenko, proteomics specialist in Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany, told Discovery News.

Researchers also discovered boat-like coffins covered by several layers of cowhide which sealed them from air, water and sand giving an impression of 'vacuum-packed.'  

After collecting 13 samples of the yellowish organic material from 10 tombs and mummies, researchers performed protein analysis. It became clear that the organic material was neither butter or milk but a cheese made by robust and easily scalable kefir fermentation. 

"Usually, proteins are either ignored or protein bulk content is estimated to characterize the nutritional properties," Shevchenko said, according to Discovery News.

"According to common belief, they are difficult to recover from the sample matrix, totally degraded and samples heavily contaminated by environment, therefore the analyzed are hardly meaningful," she added.

The results are also reported in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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