History Stories

It's claimed to be the oldest solid cheese ever found—and it contains bacteria that would have made ancient Egyptians sick.

For almost as long as people have kept cows, sheep or goats, they’ve made cheese out of their milk. The ancient Egyptians were no exception, making solid cheese to supplement their already hearty diet of beer, bread, onions and lentils. Archaeologists working on the ancient tomb of Ptahmes, dated to the 13th century BC, recently came face to face with a sample of Egyptian cheese, which they claim could be the oldest sample of solid cheese ever found.

In a study published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, scientists described their discovery from the vast tomb, which was first unearthed many decades earlier, in 1885. After most of its treasures were looted by European excavators, eventually finding their way into museums many thousands of miles away, the tomb itself was lost beneath drifting desert sands. No one had recorded its location, perhaps fearing competition—so its rediscovery in 2010 shocked and delighted the archaeological world.

A few years later, researchers came across broken jars at the site. Among these shards of pottery, they found a solidified, lumpy whitish mass alongside canvas fabric. But it wasn’t entirely clear what they’d come across before chemists, including Enrico Greco, who authored the study, began to analyze the substance. After dissolving a sample and extracting the protein constituents, they realized they had found the rudimentary remains of a hunk of cheese, once wrapped in canvas fabric and preserved in the earthenware jar.

At 3,300 years old, whether this is actually the world’s oldest cheese depends a little on your definition of cheese. In 2014, researchers found “cheese” buried with female mummies in Xinjiang, China, dating to 3,800 years old. Unlike this sample, however, it was kefir cheese—a liquid dairy product that is traditionally drunk, rather than eaten. 

In 2014, small cheese clumps were found scattered around the neck of a 3,800-year-old mummified body uncovered at the Xiaohe burial site in Xinjiang, western China. (Y. Liu, Y. Yang)

In 2014, small cheese clumps were found scattered around the neck of a 3,800-year-old mummified body uncovered at the Xiaohe burial site in Xinjiang, western China. (Y. Liu, Y. Yang)

Other excavations have revealed the remnants of cheesemaking equipment, but not the foodstuff itself, which had long since decayed. One 2012 paper described how fragments of 7,000-year-old pottery found in Poland were once used as ancient cheese strainers, used to make a kind of primitive cottage cheese.

Aging often improves the flavor of cheese, though it’s likely this particular batch was too far gone to be worth sampling. What’s more, the scientists revealed, the cheese seems to have been contaminated with a potentially deadly bacteria often found in unpasteurized dairy products. The bug causes brucellosis, a nasty strain of food poisoning that can be passed from animals to humans. The discovery of the bacteria made the find all the more exciting for archaeologists—even if it makes the cheese itself an even more unappetizing prospect.

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