The oldest cheese ever found was already stale nearly a thousand years before the earliest Greek philosophers were munching on feta. Researchers in China have discovered that the odd clumps of yellow matter found on the necks and chests of mummies from as early as 1615 BC are actually lumps of amazingly well-preserved cheese, USA Today reports. The Small River Cemetery No. 5 was uncovered in 1934 then sat forgotten for decades; excavation began in 2003, the New York Times previously reported. Dry, salty conditions in the Taklamakan Desert where the mummies were located helped keep the cheese intact for far longer than any other specimens ever identified.
The ancient cheesemakers were a Bronze Age people who buried their dead under boat-like wooden structures packed in cowhide, creating conditions that "vacuum-packed" the bodies and the cheese, says Andrej Shevchenko, whose study is to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. His analysis showed that the extremely well-aged cheese was made with a "starter" of bacteria and yeast instead of rennet from the guts of a young animal, creating a low-lactose cheese that Asia's lactose-intolerant people could have eaten. (With ancient cheese goes ancient wine: Behold, the world's oldest wine cellar.)