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Archaeology

Ancient cheese found with mummies

The oldest known pieces of cheese have turned up in the tombs of an early Bronze Age cemetery in Xinjiang, China.

Andrej Shevchenko at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, Changsui Wang at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and their colleagues analysed 3,800-year-old lumps found at the neck and chest of mummies (pictured) in the cemetery and identified them as a 'kefir' cheese.

This type of cheese is made by curdling ruminant milk with a symbiotic culture of bacteria, including Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens, and yeast. Evidence of a kefir dairy — which makes lactose-free products — in this region explains why large-scale ruminant herding and milking spread in a population known to have been lactose intolerant, the authors say. The origin of cheese making dates back some 4,000 years earlier, but evidence for this has relied on analysis of milk fat in pottery shards.

Credit: Yusheng Liu

J. Arch. Sci. http://doi.org/rpq (2014)

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Ancient cheese found with mummies. Nature 507, 10 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/507010a

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