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CHINA — Perfectly preserved pieces of cheese found on Chinese mummies may be the ultimate vintage.
The 3,600-year-old cheese was discovered on the necks and chests of mummies by researchers from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. They believe the mummies may have been buried with the cheese so they could enjoy it in the afterlife.
The cheese, which could be from as early as 1615 B.C., is the oldest ever discovered and gave further insight into how ancient peoples used cheese. Researchers think skimmed ruminant milk was used to make a kefir cheese.
"It's the earliest known dairy practice that persists until present times in an almost unchanged way," archaeologist Yimin Yang at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing told Discovery News. "The discovery moves the mysterious history of kefir as far as to the second millennium B.C., making it the oldest known dairy fermentation method."
The mummies were discovered in the Taklamakan desert. Researchers think the deseret conditions helped prevent the normal decay of the cheese because of its dry air and salty soil.
Thirteen samples were collected from 10 tombs and mummies. The cheese was described as a yellowish organic material and researchers analyzed the proteins in the clumps to determine it was kefir cheese.
"We not only identified the product as the earliest-known cheese, but we also have direct evidence of ancient technology," Andrej Shevchenko told USA Today.
They said the cheese was the first material evidence of a lactose-free scalable probiotic dairy in East Eurasia. Findings from the research were published in the Journal of Archeological Science in February.