World's Oldest Cheese Discovered

Dates back to 1615 B.C.

Feb 28, 2014
Outside Magazine

The ancient cheese bore a similar to modern kefir soup, pictured here with greens and eggs.    Getty Images/iStockphoto

B.C. stands for "before Christ," but thanks to some detailed work by archaeologists, it might as well represent "brie cheese." Scientists announced the discovery of ancient cheese on Chinese mummies dating back to 1615 B.C., according to results set for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The mummies, found in a cemetery in northwestern China's Taklamakan Desert, were buried in large wooden boats atop a sand dune and tightly wrapped with cowhide to create a vacuum-like effect, reports USA Today. This method of preservation, along with the dry desert air and salty soil, mostly prevented the corpses' decay.

Archaeologists aren't exactly sure why the corpses were buried with lumps of cheese on their bodies, but they think the intention may have been to provide the deceased with food for the afterlife. Based on chemical analysis, the cheese appears to be lactose-free and was probably quick and convenient to make. The ancient humans likely mixed milk with a starter of bacteria and yeast to produce the cheese, which bears a similarity to modern-day kefir and could have facilitated the spread of herding and farming across Asia.

"We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct … evidence of ancient technology," wrote study author Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist at Germany's Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. The cheese represents an early type of technology for commoners, Shevchenko said.

Another intriguing, and decidedly less cheesy, aspect of the study: The corpses were buried in felt hats, wool capes, and leather boots—and have exceptionally non-Asian facial features. Scientists think the people may have hailed from the Middle East, where kefir originated. The cheesemaking technique may have gained popularity among lactose-intolerant populations throughout Asia.