The world's oldest cheese has been found on the necks and chests of perfectly preserved mummies buried in China's desert sand, according to Discovery News.
Dating back as early as 1615 B.C.E., the lumps of yellowish organic material have provided direct evidence for the oldest known dairy fermentation method. The individuals were likely buried with the cheese so they could savor it in the afterlife.
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Although cheese-making is known from sites in northern Europe dating back as early as the sixth millennium B.C.E. and was common in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C.E., no remains of ancient cheeses had been found until now.
The 3,600-year-old cheese was discovered during archaeological excavations between 2002 and 2004 at the Xiaohe cemetery, in the inhospitable Taklamakan desert in northwestern China.
The researchers collected 13 samples of the yellowish organic material from 10 tombs and mummies, which included the so-called Beauty of Xiaohe - a 3,800-year-old female mummy with Caucasian features and wrapped in a finely crafted shroud.
Protein analysis showed the organic material wasn't butter or milk, but a cheese made by robust, easily scalable kefir fermentation.
The cemetery was built on a large natural dune and houses hundreds of mysterious mummies with Caucasian features, buried in massive wooden coffins resembling upside-down boats. Recent DNA studies have shown that the population of the sites was mixed, European and Asian.
Taklamakan literally means "go in and you won't come out." The area, with its salty, hyper-dry sands, which is extreme hot in summer and cold in winter, provided the perfect conditions for natural mummification.
Moreover, the boat-like coffins were covered by several layers of cowhide, which sealed them from air, water and sand as if they had been "vacuum-packed."