World's oldest cheese found on Chinese mummies

By Yolanda Tong, March 4, 2014

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Europe has long been considered the birthplace of cheese. However, a recent discovery in an ancient Chinese tomb suggests that title may rightfully belong to China. 

Crumbs sprinkled on the necks and chests of Chinese mummies buried in the Taklamakan desert in northwestern China were revealed to be the world's oldest cheese: over 3,600 years old, presumably put there as a snack for the dead to enjoy in the afterlife.

The mummies were first discovered in 1934 by a Swedish archaeologist at a 17th century BC burial site known as the Small River Cemetery No. 5, which lies in the barren, dry desert of Xinjiang province.

Chemists at Germany's Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics found that the cheese is a lactose-free variety that was quick to make. 

"We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct evidence of ancient technology," analytical chemist and study author Andrej Shevchenko told USA Today. "The method of making the cheese was cheap and would have been used by common people."

According to Live Science, the dry air and salty soil kept the mummies and the ancient cheese well preserved for thousands of years.

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