What’s New In The World Of Cheese? Something Very, Very Old.

Good news, everyone! Or at least, it’s good news if you’re anything like me and you enjoy nerding out over food, archaeology and basically everything in between. This week arrived with news that had me stuck to my laptop screen like peanut butter to the roof of a dog’s mouth. An archaeological dig in northwestern China has been excavating a group of tombs in the Taklamakan desert since 2002 in an attempt to learn more about the mysterious Bronze Age people buried there, and this week, they came out with some pretty big news.

The Taklamakan excavation has been based around the hundreds of bodies entombed beneath boat-shaped coffins, which were wrapped so tightly in cows’ hides that the archaeologists described them as being practically vacuum-packed. That, combined with the salty soil and extreme, arid conditions of the area, known as River Cemetery Number Five, provided a unique opportunity for preservation. (Taklamakan, the name of the desert, literally means “go in and you won’t come out.”) The mummies, with light brown hair and strangely Caucasian features, were buried wearing felt hats and woollen capes, surrounded by goods like woven baskets and plant seeds. They also had lumps of cheese scattered over their chests and necks – and the cheese dates aaaall the way back to 1615 B.C., making it by far the oldest in the world. (This is the part that made my eyebrows fly up into my hair.)

While the purpose of the dig is to learn about the culture of the people buried here, this discovery also has implications for the history of cheese itself and that of food in general. Until now, the earliest evidence of cheesemaking has rested with 7,000-year-old cheese strainers found in Poland, and cheese-making tools in Denmark dating back to 3,000 B.C., but actual samples of cheese have proved elusive. But wait – why would cheese be so important to these people? Aren’t the vast majority of Asian populations genetically lactose-intolerant? Well yes, yes they are, but it seems as though this cheese was made via the kefir method, which is based on bacteria and yeasts rather than the use of rennet. This produces a lactose-free cheese suitable for even the Leonard Hofstaders of the world.

This also means that the origin story of cheese might be vastly different to what we’ve been envisioning. Until now, it’s been generally assumed that cheesemaking began when some prehistoric farmer decided to store his milk in an animal stomach (y’know, like the ones we all have lying around) and got a pleasant surprise when he found it had changed into cheese. If the kefir method predates this, however, then that changes everything – just like when Buffy went in search of her own origin story and discovered that the First Slayer was created using the spirit of a demon. (I swear, there is a Buffy analogy for literally every situation.) This potentially makes kefir the oldest fermentation method in the world, which makes sense – in this way, milk could be preserved as cheese without necessitating the slaughter of precious livestock to get the rennet required, a risky prospect for prehistoric tribes in terms of resources. This is exciting stuff (again, if you’re a nerd) because it is brand-spanking new evidence of ancient technology.

I’m sure there’s more to be learned about this ancient cheese, as well as the people who made it and thought it important enough to carry into the afterlife, and I’m excited to learn more when the study is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. As for myself, I don’t believe I’m headed anywhere after this life, but if I thought for a second I was then I’d probably be packing some Stilton myself.

Any thoughts on this cheesy news? Leave a comment below.

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