Normally, Andrej Shevchenko and his team at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden analyse proteins and fats in the cells of fruit flies or roundworms. In this case, however, the scientists dealt with some very unusual samples: misshapen fragments that turned out to be the remnants of cheese from the Early Bronze Age, making them the earliest known cheese yet to be discovered. The cheese fragments represent funerary goods that were found around the neck and on the chest of a 4,000-year-old mummified body uncovered at the Xiaohe burial site in Xinjiang, western China. Their analysis enabled the researchers to recreate the recipe for the cheese: like kefir, it was made of milk with the addition of a mixture of bacteria and yeast, and subsequently fermented.
The 4,000-year-old Xiaohe cheese represents the oldest remains of a milk product ever found. The extremely arid climate in the Taklamakan Desert, where the Xiaohe burial ground is located, meant that the cheese residues were exceptionally well preserved – a real stroke of luck for the Dresden-based researchers. The cheese found on the mummies was produced with bacteria and yeast, not with rennet: “This meant that no young animals had to be slaughtered – a major advantage of this production method,” explains Shevchenko.
According to the scientist’s interpretation, this may have been instrumental in the spread of cattle herding on a large scale throughout Asia. “The method of making this kefir cheese is simple; it doesn’t spoil or turn rancid quickly – so the cheese is extremely well suited to mass production.” As a precursor to the cheese, the process of fermentation with kefir grains also produces the probiotic milk drink known as kefir. Both products contain hardly any lactose – ideal for the population groups living in Asia, most of which are lactose intolerant. Via Researchers reconstruct a cheese recipe from the Early Bronze Age.