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Ancient Chinese Mummies Discovered In Cheesy Afterlife

samzenpus posted about 5 months ago | from the everything's-better-with-cheese dept.

Science 64

astroengine writes "The world's oldest cheese has been found on the necks and chests of perfectly preserved mummies buried in China's desert sand. Dating back as early as 1615 B.C., the lumps of yellowish organic material have provided direct evidence for the oldest known dairy fermentation method. The individuals were likely buried with the cheese so they could savor it in the afterlife. Although cheese-making is known from sites in northern Europe as early as the 6th millennium B.C. and was common in Egypt and Mesopotamia in 3rd millennium B.C., until now no remains of ancient cheeses had been found."

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Is it edible (2)

optimus_phil (2554116) | about 5 months ago | (#46365975)

I can see this selling as one of those new prolong your life foods

Re:Is it edible (1)

GloomE (695185) | about 5 months ago | (#46366287)

I can see this on my pizza.

Re:Is it edible (2)

OakDragon (885217) | about 5 months ago | (#46367023)

I can see this on my pizza.

Ask your mummy to make you one.

Re:Is it edible (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46370623)

I can see this on my pizza.

If you can see it on your pizza, you need to go grocery shopping. You also need to do some housecleaning too!

More likely is that the reason is... (-1, Offtopic)

EzInKy (115248) | about 5 months ago | (#46366003)

...that the Emperor could savor the cheese in the afterlife. Chinese philosophy, even today and which makes it so amenable to communism, is to favor central authority over individualism. Whether that philosophy is for the best remains to be seen. Western attempts at the same resulted in concentrating power in inept individuals.

Re:More likely is that the reason is... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46366219)

What Emperor? Your reading comprehension is on par with your knowledge of Chinese history.

If we got an inept individual as the emperor ... (2)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | about 5 months ago | (#46366261)

Chinese philosophy, even today and which makes it so amenable to communism, is to favor central authority over individualism. Whether that philosophy is for the best remains to be seen. Western attempts at the same resulted in concentrating power in inept individuals

The Chinese do not fear inept individuals as emperors. They fear emperors who have too many of those "bright ideas" which often result in the death of untold millions.

The last "Emperor" that the Chinese had had was Mao, and under his tutelage, more than 60 million Chinese perished, mostly of starvation.

Re:More likely is that the reason is... (2)

thoughtsatthemoment (1687848) | about 5 months ago | (#46366279)

Incorrect. Among Chinese philosophies, Daoism prefers naturism and promotes following one's own nature while checking one's own will, while Confucianism and Legalism favor central government with different approaches.

Listen to your parents! (0)

Smivs (1197859) | about 5 months ago | (#46366021)

Mummy knows best - eat your cheese up!

rennet (4, Interesting)

ruir (2709173) | about 5 months ago | (#46366047)

Just a quick note, rennet was/is not made of one enzyme in the intestine of bovines, but of one in the stomach. The article got it wrong. It is rather interesting they were using kefir for cheese making...ovo-lacto vegetarian cheese lol

Re:rennet (2)

Sique (173459) | about 5 months ago | (#46366123)

Cheese is always ovo-lacto-vegetarian. It is the epitome of an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet.

Re:rennet (3, Interesting)

LordLucless (582312) | about 5 months ago | (#46366259)

Not if they're using animal rennet to set the curd. Modern cheeses often don't, but it was the standard method in traditional cheesemaking.

Re:rennet (2)

hawkinspeter (831501) | about 5 months ago | (#46366441)

Most modern cheeses still use animal rennet. Typically, it's just the cheeses labelled as vegetarian that use an alternative to rennet. e.g. Parmesan cannot even be called Parmesan unless it's made with rennet.

Re:rennet (1)

ruir (2709173) | about 5 months ago | (#46366993)

The comment I made on the top of the thread was not innocent. It is one of the "best" preserved secrets in the industry and people are actually socked by it. I only found it out when I went vegan. As a side anecdote , I once asked my sister if she knew how cheese was made, and she told me milk and cream...sure...ignorance is a bliss. Thing is, it turns it out standard cheese is neither vegetarian nor hallal

Re:rennet (1)

Blaskowicz (634489) | about 5 months ago | (#46367167)

Is there a reason it can't be hallal? Arab groceries sell stomachs over here.

Re:rennet (1)

Rob the Bold (788862) | about 5 months ago | (#46367325)

Is there a reason it can't be hallal? Arab groceries sell stomachs over here.

Both Kosher and Halal dietary laws mandate separation of milk and meat.

Re:rennet (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 5 months ago | (#46368589)

Well obviously the milk was at one time part of the animal, is there some reason that stomach enzymes must follow different rules? After all they're no more "meat" than the milk is.

Re:rennet (1)

Blaskowicz (634489) | about 5 months ago | (#46372987)

There must be something holy in tits.

Re:rennet (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 5 months ago | (#46373933)

I doubt many of any gender would argue with you. But shouldn't that be teats? Tits on a cow is a rather...unusual image.

Re:rennet (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46374385)

I doubt many of any gender would argue with you. But shouldn't that be teats? Tits on a cow is a rather...unusual image.

There's a yo-mamma joke in there somewhere, I can taste it!

Re:rennet (1)

Rob the Bold (788862) | about 5 months ago | (#46367439)

The comment I made on the top of the thread was not innocent. It is one of the "best" preserved secrets in the industry and people are actually socked by it. I only found it out when I went vegan. As a side anecdote , I once asked my sister if she knew how cheese was made, and she told me milk and cream...sure...ignorance is a bliss. Thing is, it turns it out standard cheese is neither vegetarian nor hallal

True -- ignorance is bliss. "Standard" cheese in the US is often labeled as containing "enzymes" without any description of the origin. So you never really know . . .

It really is eye-opening to make some of the foods you usually buy in processed form yourself, from scratch. Cheese, tofu, sauerkraut, beer, whatever. Even just reading a copy of "The Joy of Cooking" is enlightening, since it describes -- in detail -- the process of producing all kinds of things you never thought much about because they were readily available at the supermarket.

Re:rennet (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46367993)

hah, well yeah, american cheese...doh!

Re:rennet (1)

hawkinspeter (831501) | about 5 months ago | (#46367543)

I didn't think it was that much of a secret. I've been a pescetarian (a fish-eating vegetarian) for a couple of decades and have known about rennet in cheese for most of that time. A better kept secret is probably the use of fish finings in the production of wine.

Strangely enough, I tried making cottage cheese myself just a couple of weeks ago and thus read up on a couple of different ways to make it. I used goats milk (because I like it), heated it and then put in lemon juice to curdle it. It ended up with quite small curds, so I left it pressed in a cheese-cloth to make it into a single lump.

Re:rennet (1)

ruir (2709173) | about 5 months ago | (#46368047)

Not only fish finings, for red and port wine they also used bones/meat to give more "body" to the wine. I first read about fish finings for beers, however most of our national beers here in Portugal are pasteurised, or so do say. http://www.barnivore.com/beer [barnivore.com]

Re:rennet (3, Informative)

wiredlogic (135348) | about 5 months ago | (#46367655)

Most modern cheeses still use animal rennet.

It depends on how strict your country is on the definition of "cheese". In the EU it's more common because of protectionist policies. The world supply of rennet is too low, however, to meet the demand for cheese so most cheeses are curdled with synthetic rennet or alternative coagulants. Currently only 35% of world cheese production uses animal rennet.

Re:rennet (1)

hawkinspeter (831501) | about 5 months ago | (#46367793)

Well, I live in the UK and the "vegetarian" labelled cheeses are definitely the minority. They're usually more expensive as well. I doubt that it's all due to protectionist policies as new varieties of cheese are mostly made with animal rennet and they wouldn't be covered by "D.O.P." rules.

I just tried to verify your 35% figure - where did you find that out?

Re:rennet (2)

wiredlogic (135348) | about 5 months ago | (#46367825)

I found it here [wikia.com] . I assume the cheese heads maintaining that wiki have reasonably up to date figures.

Re:rennet (1)

hawkinspeter (831501) | about 5 months ago | (#46368149)

Thanks. That's a lot lower than I would have expected, but as I couldn't find any other figure, I imagine it'd be relatively accurate.

I was surprised to see that United States is the world's largest cheese producer, but most if it is eaten domestically which would explain why it's not often seen elsewhere.

Maybe not cheese, maybe a tool? (5, Informative)

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) | about 5 months ago | (#46366617)

It is rather interesting they were using kefir for cheese making

Yes, this is actually the most interesting finding here, since what they discovered probably wouldn't be recognized as normal "cheese" by many people. It's not like they found a small wheel of cheddar placed lovingly on the chests of bodies. Rennet-based cheeses are what most people in the Western world think of when they hear the word "cheese," or perhaps artificially acidified cheeses, like mozzarella or paneer.

This "cheese" (if indeed that's what it was -- see below) was produced by a slower acidification from fermentation. Then presumably it was strained or dried to separate the solids. The closest approximation for people unfamiliar with kefir would be to take a bunch of yogurt, put it in some cloth, then hang it and let the liquid drain out for a couple days, going past the point of thick "Greek yogurt" to a drier texture. (Technically, this makes labneh, a Middle Eastern-style fresh cheese.) It's a different type of cheese from rennet-based cheeses, but one more common in traditional cultures around the world.

For those not familiar with traditional kefir, it's very different from the store-bought stuff. It depends on a starter composed of "kefir grains," which is essentially a small mass of colonies of many types of microorganisms, which look like a group of small pearl-like things with a rubbery texture. They are very stable and durable, able to be rejuvenated after drying out, freezing, or even being "starved" for months.

The reason this is relevant to the story is that these kefir grains, to my knowledge, have not been replicated using modern scientific methods, despite many attempts. (Most "starters" for things like sourdough bread, yeast for wine, or common fermentations for milk like yogurt, can be cultivated fresh with only minimal effort from the naturally occurring organisms on flour, grapes, or milk.) In kefir, there are too many bacteria in a symbiotic relationship, and scientists still haven't managed to figure out how to get them to create these grains by themselves. The only way to get traditional kefir is to get some grains from someone. (The store-bought stuff is produce, like yogurt, just by using a small number of bacterial strains for fermentation under controlled conditions.)

Because of the difficulty in reproducing traditional kefir grains, there are all sorts of origin myths about it -- stories about it coming from medieval Georgia or the armies of Genghis Khan or whatever.

Anyhow, what I wonder from reading the story is how exactly they know this is "cheese" and not merely a dried form of kefir grains? In the era before refrigeration, kefir grains were essential to preserve fresh milk for later consumption, and where highly prized. There are all sorts of traditional stories from these cultures about people stealing kefir grains, because you couldn't just make new ones easily. You had to get them somewhere.

So, the question that occurs to me is -- why do we assume this is food for the afterlife? Why not consider the possibility that these people were given a gift of kefir grains (in a concentrated dried form) to carry with them to the afterlife -- an essential food preserving and processing tool, which could not be simply "made." It was something you had to carry with you, something you had to get from a previous batch of kefir, so maybe this was the only way to get it to the afterlife.

That would be my first thought, if I found this stuff.

Re:Maybe not cheese, maybe a tool? (1)

ruir (2709173) | about 5 months ago | (#46367001)

Rather interesting comment sir. Whilst I was starting reading your answer, I was thinking about if it were possible to be milk that were too long with the kefir, however your ideia is much more interesting.

Re:Maybe not cheese, maybe a tool? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46368869)

I wonder if there is any way to sequence the bacterial dna, or even try to revive them? You note that they could be rejuvenated after drying out. This is certainly a longer time, but being effectively freeze dried, it might be possible. If so, you could use it to make that kefir cheese again, and literally taste food from thousands of years ago.

Re:Maybe not cheese, maybe a tool? (1)

sunsurfandsand (1959680) | about 5 months ago | (#46369289)

That is indeed interesting. Thanks for sharing your idea.

This is good news for me, too. Friends have influenced my wife to feed me "The Paleo Diet". I hope she'll buy the idea that cavemen did in fact have cheese after all...so I can too.

Re:rennet (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46370339)

...ovo-lacto vegetarian cheese lol

I'm pretty sure there would be a market for that in Portland.

And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46366051)

My wife is Chinese and I was under the impression that China is the only major country without its own native cheese. Contrast with France or the US.

Not a place Wallace and Grommet would go on vacation.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (1)

RabidReindeer (2625839) | about 5 months ago | (#46366457)

My wife is Chinese and I was under the impression that China is the only major country without its own native cheese. Contrast with France or the US.

Not a place Wallace and Grommet would go on vacation.

Lactose intolerance?

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (2)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 5 months ago | (#46366541)

My wife is Chinese and I was under the impression that China is the only major country without its own native cheese. .

Lactose intolerance?

No. Many Chinese people are lactose intolerant, but most cheese contains very little lactose. Generally, Chinese people just don't like cheese. I think it is cultural rather than genetic, since most ABCs (American born Chinese) that I know do like cheese. The mummies were Caucasian, as were the people that lived 3600 years ago in what is now northwest China.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (3, Funny)

JoeMerchant (803320) | about 5 months ago | (#46367151)

It's a cultural thing, passed down from the 17th century BCE when the mob would kidnap people who didn't pay their debts, haul them out to the desert and bury them to "sleep with the cheeses."

The "why" has been forgotten, but the distaste for cheese lingers on.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 5 months ago | (#46368617)

When you think about it it's a big block of intentionally spoiled milk. What's surprising is that so many cultures embrace the stuff.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46370857)

Lactose intolerance?

Down with lactose intolerance!!!11!!eleven!!

In this day and age, we should put away such mindless, insensitive bigotry!!!

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46366661)

Interesting, my wife is also Chinese and I had thought the same thing. I was in China several times and dairy products in general are hard to find. when you do they are typically Japanese imports (expensive and watery).

In Canada she rarely eats cheese of any sort (pizza, macaroni and cheese, etc).

Perhaps over the years they simply moved away from dairy?

To the guy below me: Lactose intolerance?
No, she can drink milk without issue but chooses not to.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (1)

invid (163714) | about 5 months ago | (#46366765)

My advice to Americans is to avoid dairy while in China. Every American I've known who ate dairy while in China was incapacitated with violent vomiting and diarrhea. Some needed to be hospitalized. The dairy technology and culture there isn't what it is in the west. I once asked a Chinese co-worker why he didn't like cheese. He said it was the smell. If I never had cheese before and then was confronted with a pile of feta I probably would feel the same way.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (4, Informative)

orzetto (545509) | about 5 months ago | (#46367013)

Indeed that is correct, Chinese do not like cheese. However the mummies are from the Xiahoe tomb complex [wikipedia.org] in the Xinjiang [wikipedia.org] , whose name in Chinese means "New Frontier". People there are more central Asian than Han Chinese, and China gained control of the area only in the 17th century. Still today, Chinese characters are used side-by-side with Arabic in street signs and such (see Urumqi train station [wikipedia.org] for example).

Point being, culture there is different, and was not even in contact with Han Chinese at the time of the mummies.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (2)

Guppy (12314) | about 5 months ago | (#46368887)

Indeed that is correct, Chinese do not like cheese.

Although, there's been quite a push in recent times to increase consumption of dairy products, coming from several different directions. From the government, who would like to introduce a new revenue source to farming (the urban-rural income gap is an increasing problem), as well as a new protein source to their citizens; from consumers with increasing exposure to Western influences (and the advertisers that would like to sell to them); from parents wishing their children would grow up taller than the previous generation. Even from young girls hoping to grow bigger boobs.

The most successful cheeses thus far seem to be the milder-tasting types. Things like mozzarellas, or soft cheeses suitable for desserts and cheesecakes. Unfortunately, these are also the cheeses highest in lactose -- the great majority of Chinese are lactose intolerant.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46368055)

The US has cheese? Name one. Please. I've lived here 21 years and haven't found anything that qualifies.

Re: And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46370651)

Quit shopping at 7-11.

Re:And Modern Chinese have no Native Cheese (1)

cyfer2000 (548592) | about 5 months ago | (#46368835)

3600 years ago, that region was mostly inhabited by Tocharians [wikipedia.org] who spoke an ancient Indo-European language [wikipedia.org] . The Tocharians were Caucasians.

Hard water (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46366057)

Calgon is the answer!

and no you did not get it, did you!

Shelf life? (0)

JDeane (1402533) | about 5 months ago | (#46366067)

New Kraft Mummies!!! The cheesiest!!!

This story (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46366145)

is pretty cheesey...

Perhaps it's what's killed them (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 5 months ago | (#46366225)

It's not easy being cheesy.

"so they could savor it in the afterlife." (3, Insightful)

kruach aum (1934852) | about 5 months ago | (#46366237)

Unless there is there are contemporary written accounts available of ancient Chinese burial rites, how could anyone possibly know this?

Re:"so they could savor it in the afterlife." (2)

captainpanic (1173915) | about 5 months ago | (#46366249)

Why else would someone put cheese on a dead body?

Perhaps as a final act of revenge? The archeologists should prove that it is particularly stinky cheese to make that plausible.
Or perhaps it is the ultimate preservative: bacteria rather starve to death than eat a dead body covered in that cheese.

Re:"so they could savor it in the afterlife." (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | about 5 months ago | (#46366443)

Why else would someone put cheese on a dead body?

Necrophilia . . .

. . . Smegma.

the lumps of yellowish organic material (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46366273)

That's... not cheese.

Re:the lumps of yellowish organic material (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46366493)

The mummy was a female and it was around her neck... ;;)

Chinese Affineur (1)

nospam007 (722110) | about 5 months ago | (#46366281)

Sounds like the Chinese Affineur overdid it a bit.

That smell (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46366325)

In order to date it, somebody had to cut the cheese.

Get the cheese to sick bay! (3, Interesting)

bickerdyke (670000) | about 5 months ago | (#46366583)

Get the cheese to sick bay!

I know I'm showing my age, but that was one of the most popular memes back on Fido-Net... Anyone else remembers that [ejge.com] ?

Alright... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46367247)

Who moved my cheese?

Blessed are the cheesemakers (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46367421)

What's so special about the cheesemakers?

BC (1)

Sporkinum (655143) | about 5 months ago | (#46368233)

Cheeses before Jesus.

Re:BC (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46370893)

Cheeses before Jesus.

Death before taxes.

Cheeneese? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46370137)

I thought the chinese culture found cheese to be disgusting and inedible?

Re:Cheeneese? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46370217)

You haven't a clue, uncultured American.
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