A recent discovery has uncovered new, hard – or in this case, semi-soft – evidence of the history behind one of our very favorite foods. Whether the scent is described as floral or nutty or even malodorous to the nose, the smooth taste of cheese is nonetheless an enduring delight to the palate. It is believed that cheese has been enjoyed by humans since before recorded history. There are several theories as to its exact origin, but all of these theories are speculation based on evidence of cheese production, not of any cheese itself. Well, now we have some ancient cheese of our very own to study.
According to USA TODAY, a study in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals that clumps of yellowish cheese have been found on the necks and chests of Chinese mummies buried in the Taklamakan Desert. For reasons unknown, the deceased were buried under overturned boats. The find dates back as far as 1615 BCE. The bodies and the cheese particles were well-preserved because of the vacuum-like seal that was made by wrapping the boat and its contents tightly in a cowhide. This was further helped along by the arid desert conditions and salty soil.
Perhaps even more amazing is that scientists found “direct evidence of ancient technology,” which elucidated exactly how the cheese was made. Study author Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, says “the method was easy, cheap … It’s a technology for the common people.” Although there is some disagreement as to the actual base ingredient, Shevchenko’s team contends that the technology used a kefir-type of starter rather than rennet, which is and was the conventional way of making cheese. Kefir is a tart, thickened liquid made from cow’s milk fermented with yeast and bacteria. Since a kefir starter did not require the killing of an animal as in the rennet method, which uses mammalian stomachs in its processing, kefir could be made anywhere, at any time. (Today, rennet can be produced from non-animal sources.) Also, kefir as an ingredient made this a low-lactose cheese. Good news for lactose-intolerant ancients.
Shevchenko and his team analyzed the proteins and fats in the clumps that they found to determine that they were indeed cheese. Why was the cheese with the mummies? Shevchenko speculates that as with many other ancient cultures, the dead were sent on their way with items from their earthly existence, and as such food would be included on that journey to the afterlife.
Kefir is actually easy to make. In ancient times, the technology was quite straight-forward:
…fresh milk—from cows, goats, or sheep—was poured into watertight bags made of goat or sheepskin and the “magical,” cauliflower-like grains of a kefir culture were added before the bag was suspended in the sun during the day. When the sun went down, the bag was brought inside and hung near the door. Each person passing in or out of the doorway would push or prod the bag, helping ensure that the milk and kefir grains remained well mixed as the milk fermented. As kefir was consumed, more milk was added to the bag so that the process could continue uninterrupted—as it had for hundreds or even thousands of years, descended through the ages from kefir grains first used many generations ago.
Kefir is an ancient superfood shared by various cultures. This find in China is remarkable for its preservation of actual cheese particles and indications of kefir use, giving us a look into the nutrition of early diets in that area. Interestingly, kefir itself has a hallowed and colorful history in other parts of the world as well.
There is a legend among the Islamic people living on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains that Mohammed gave kefir grains to Orthodox Christians, thereby teaching them to make kefir. Called the “Grains of the Prophet,” they were jealously guarded by their owners, as they believed the grains would lose their potency if the secret of their use became common knowledge. Thus, kefir grains were secretly passed from one generation to the next, closely guarded as part of the wealth of each family within the tribe, and although foreigners were sometimes given kefir to drink—Marco Polo recounts tasting kefir in the book of his eastern travels—the method of making kefir was kept secret and the drink was all but forgotten until the 19th century.
We pick up the mystery of the long-lost kefir recipe in the 19th century, when news came to the All Russian Physician’s Society that kefir was being successfully used for treating stomach ailments and tuberculosis. Since there was no known recipe for the drink, a plot was hatched by the society to secure some long-lost kefir grains. Read about this bit of Russian intrigue that reintroduced this ancient superfood and was responsible for the milky concoction in our dairy aisles today.
Today, it’s just as simple to make kefir, and you don’t even need a bag made of goat or sheepskin to whack or a series of elders to whisper the recipe in your ear. See how kefir is made in the 21st century in this video.
At AntiquityNOW we love our dairy products. From cheese to cheesecake to kefir, we are thrilled when we get the chance to dive into the past and learn more about where these products came from and why we can’t get enough of their creamy, milky perfection. Check out our most dairy-full posts and enjoy some ancient recipes while you learn!
- Bon Appetit Wednesday! Ancient Magical Kefir-Learn more about Mohammed and the “Grains of the Prophet.”
- Bon Appetit Wednesday! Asparagus With Curry Butter: The Ancient History of Golden, Buttery Deliciousness– Read about the brief history of butter.
- Bon Appetit Wednesday! Celebrate National Grilled Cheese Month– Explore the history of cheese.
- Bon Appetit Wednesday! Celebrate an Olympic-Sized Love with Ancient Cheesecake– Enough said. Cheesecake!
- Bon Appetit Wednesday! Happy Holidays! Enjoy an Eggnog Courtesy of Your Ancestral Genes– How did humanity learn to digest lactose?
 Watson, T. (2014, February 25). Great Gouda! World’s oldest cheese found. Retrieved March 10, 2015.