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Science

Ancient Chinese Mummies Discovered In Cheesy Afterlife 64

Posted by samzenpus
from the everything's-better-with-cheese dept.
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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Ancient Chinese Mummies Discovered In Cheesy Afterlife

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @05:45AM (#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.

  • by AthanasiusKircher (1333179) on Friday February 28, 2014 @09:05AM (#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.

  • by orzetto (545509) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:16AM (#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:rennet (Score:4, Informative)

    by wiredlogic (135348) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:32AM (#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.

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