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Organic material buried with Chinese mummies identified as world's oldest cheese

Cheese is offered for sale at a Walgreens store on September 19, 2013 in Wheeling, Illinois.
Cheese is offered for sale at a Walgreens store on September 19, 2013 in Wheeling, Illinois.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

It's a discovery that's a little icky, but also pretty neat.

According to USA Today on Tuesday, scientists have identified "yellowish clumps" found on the necks and chests of Chinese mummies to be cheese. Estimates conclude that it could come from as early as 1615 B.C., easily making it the oldest cheese ever discovered.

Analysis also determined that the cheese was made using a process combining milk with a bacteria and yeast mixture, a method similar to the one used to make the fermented milk drink known as kefir. The drink has origins in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia and can be used to make a cheese that is similar to cottage cheese.

"We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct … evidence of ancient technology," analytical chemist and study author Andrej Shevchenko said. Shevchenko also called the process "easy, cheap … It's a technology for the common people."

The mummies were found during an excavation done from 2002-2004 at the Xiaohe cemetery in northwestern China. Natives, believed to have existed in the Bronze Age, reportedly buried people on top of a sand dune in salty soil underneath wooden boats wrapped in cowhide. Altogether, the environmental conditions resulted in extremely well-hair, skin, textiles and the organic material later identified as the ancient cheese.

It's not completely clear why cheese chunks were places with the bodies when they were buried, but Shevchenko suggests that it could have been food for the deceased to enjoy in the afterlife.

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