Ancient Egypt: Did Researchers Just Find the World's Oldest Cheese?

Cheese maker Gabriel Luddy cuts a wheel of dry-aged jack cheese at Vella Cheese in Sonoma, California, on June 10, 2014. A “whitish mass” found in an Egyptian tomb could be among the oldest solid cheese found to date. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A "whitish mass" found in an Egyptian tomb could be the oldest example of "solid" cheese found to date, according to a study published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

The tomb, which is located in the vast ancient burial ground of Saqqara south of the capital Cairo, belongs to Ptahmes—mayor of the ancient city of Memphis and a high-ranking official under the 19th Dynasty Pharaohs Sethi I and Ramses II (1290 B.C. to 1213 B.C.).

During excavations in 2013 to 2014, researchers found a jar containing the intriguing solidified material wrapped in a canvas fabric, which may have been used to preserve its contents.

"The archaeologist suspected it was a kind of food left for the owner of the tomb, and they decided to proceed with the chemical analyses," Enrico Greco, an author of the study from the Department of Chemical Sciences at the University of Catania (UC), Italy, told Newsweek.

The scientists dissolved the sample of the "mass", which weighed a few hundred grams, purified its protein contents and then used two techniques, known as liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, to determine that it was a dairy product made from a combination of cow's milk and sheep or goat's milk.

According to the researchers, the characteristics of the canvas fabric would have made it unsuitable for containing liquid, or non-solid materials, leading to the conclusion that the dairy product was a solid cheese.

The age of the cheese, which the researchers place at around 3,200 years old, has not been definitively confirmed, although it was identified with "good confidence", according to Greco. This conclusion was based on archaeological evidence from inscriptions on the tomb, not chemical analysis—which was avoided to prevent contamination of the sample by human cells.

But is this the oldest cheese ever found?

According to Bettina Arnold, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who was not involved in the study, "How one defines 'cheese' as distinct from other forms of fermented milk products, such as yogurt, kefir or alcoholic milk products," is important when discussing this issue.

"The 19th Dynasty in Egypt is New Kingdom (1292 B.C. to 1189 B.C.), so technically a "cheese" discovered in the burial of female mummies in Xinjiang, China, in 2014 is "older," she told Newsweek.

Chunks of a yellowish substance, measuring between 0.4 to 0.8 inches, were found around the necks and chests of these mummies in the Taklamakan Desert.

Subsequent chemical analysis showed that the substance likely resembled kefir cheese—a soft, yogurt-like dairy product—which was probably simple to make, nutritious, easily digestible and meant to be eaten fresh, not kept for long periods, according to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The authors of the latest study, however, say finds like this may not necessarily be cheese in the strictest sense.

"In principle we can't exclude that other cheese samples—older or not—have been discovered or will be discovered in the future, but until now this is the oldest one that was scientifically analyzed and published in a scientific journal," Enrico Ciliberto, another author from UC, told Newsweek. "Moreover we have to say that other dairy products, older than ours, have been found and published but they were kefir or yogurt and not cheese (there is a big difference in terms of chemical composition)."

However, while the Chinese and Egyptian samples may represent two of the oldest known pieces of cheese, the earliest evidence of the product goes back much further.

A 2013 paper—led by Richard Evershed from the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, England, and published in the journal Nature—showed that humans in prehistoric Northern Europe were making cheese more than 7,000 years ago as evidenced by the presence of dairy fats in ceramic "sieves".

"The presence of dairy fats/residues in such specialized vessel types made us think that [they] were cheese strainers," Mélanie Roffet-Salque, a postdoctoral research associate from the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, England, and an author of the Nature study, told Newsweek. "These potsherds were found in Poland and dated to the sixth millennium B.C."

Another paper, also led by Evershed, found abundant milk residues in even older pottery vessels from northwestern Anatolia dated to the seventh millennium B.C., providing the earliest evidence of milk processing. However, it is unclear whether these residues come from cheese.

According to Peter Bogucki, another author on the 2013 Nature study from the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, these earlier sets of evidence should not diminish the importance of the current find in Egypt, "which is quite remarkable and can tell us a lot about the actual composition of the cheese itself".

"The discovery of actual cheese—"solid cheese residue"—is indeed exciting, and thanks to extraordinary conditions of preservation and very careful excavation, we have this important find from circa 1300/1200 B.C.", he told Newsweek.

Cheese-making has been inferred at several sites in northern Europe up to the sixth millennium B.C. and was common in Egypt and Mesopotamia—a historical region in western Asia—in the third millennium B.C. According to the authors of the Archaeological Science paper, the production scale, social and economic impacts of cheese in ancient times remains poorly understood.

Nevertheless, it is likely that dairy processing was an important step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using hunter-gatherers, the authors of the 2013 Nature study suggest.

"The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers," they wrote.