A solid white mass found in a broken jar in an Ancient Egyptian tomb has turned out to be the world’s oldest example of solid cheese.
Probably made mostly from sheep or goats milk, the cheese was found several years ago by archaeologists in the ancient tomb of Ptahmes, who was a high-ranking Egyptian official.
The substance was identified after the archaeology team carried out biomolecular identification of its proteins.
This 3,200-year-old find is exciting because it shows that the Ancient Egyptian’s shared our love of cheese — to the extent it was given as a funerary offering.
But not only that, it also fits into archaeology’s growing understanding of the importance of dairy to the development of the human diet in Europe.
Using a technique called “lipid analysis“, sherds of ancient pottery can be analysed and fats absorbed into the clay identified. This then allows archaeologists to find out what was cooked or processed inside them.
Although it is not yet possible to identify the species of animal, dairy fats can be distinguished. It is also challenging to determine what techniques were being used to make dairy products safe to consume, with many potential options.
Fermenting milk, for example, breaks down the lactose sugar into lactic acid. Cheese is low in lactose because it involves separating curd from whey, in which the majority of the lactose sugars remain.
Clay sieves from Poland, similar to modern cheese sieves, have been found to have dairy lipids preserved in the pores of clay, suggesting that they were being used to separate curds from the whey.
Whether the curds were then consumed or attempts made to preserve them by pressing into a harder cheese is unknown.
Fermentation of milk was also possible to our ancestors, but harder to explore with the techniques currently available to archaeology.
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