There’s nothing quite like a nice, aged cheese, but even the most adventurous cheese connoisseurs would be put off by a recent discovery from an an ancient Chinese tomb. Archaeologists uncovered perfectly preserved mummies whose chests were sprinkled with extra aged, 3500-year-old cheese — the world’s oldest cheese by a long shot.
Since dairy has a tendency to decay pretty quickly, cheese isn’t exactly known for its staying power. It just so happened that the conditions at Small River Cemetery Number 5 in northwestern China — the site at which the cheese-covered mummies were discovered — created the perfect storm of prime cheese preservation. USA Today explains:
First documented by a Swedish archaeologist in the 1930s, it sits in the fearsome Taklamakan Desert, one of the world’s largest. A mysterious Bronze Age people buried dozens of their own atop a large sand dune near a now-dry river, interring their kin underneath what looks like large wooden boats. The boats were wrapped so snugly with cowhide that it’s as if they’d been “vacuum-packed,” Shevchenko says.
The combination of dry desert air and salty soil prevented decay to an extraordinary degree.
The cheese isn’t just remarkable for its age, though; the discovery also sheds light on the of ancient technologies. An analysis showed that the cheese had been made using a mix of bacteria and yeast, creating something that we might liken to cottage cheese that was also lactose-free.
And while scientists do have evidence of cheese-making strainers dating back over 7000 years, any cheese from that time is, presumably, long gone by now. Here’s to hoping the archaeologists take a page out of this scientist’s book.