You won’t be seeing this one in the case at Whole Foods.
Researchers say they may have discovered the world’s oldest known solid cheese in an Egyptian tomb that dates back to the 13th century BC. Evidence also suggests the cheese contains the earliest reported sample of a potentially deadly disease, brucellosis, which spreads from animals to people.
The study was published in July in the journal Analytical Chemistry.
“The material analyzed in this study is probably the most ancient archeological solid residue of cheese ever found to date,” the study abstract said.
The tomb, which belonged to Ptahmes, once the mayor of Memphis, Egypt, was first discovered in 1885 by treasure hunters, who stole objects inside. The tomb was rediscovered in 2010, and three years later, archeologists opened the tomb and found broken jars at the site, said Enrico Greco, lead author of the study.
In one of the broken jars, researchers found a “solidified, whitish” mass, wrapped in a piece of canvas, researchers said.
Greco said not everything in the jar was cheese because the site underwent “a series of very high cyclical environmental stresses,” contaminating the cheese with sand and soil.
But researchers believe the original piece of cheese weighed hundreds of grams, said Greco, who was a doctoral candidate at the University of Catania in Italy at the time.
Greco and other colleagues analyzed the substance using protein analysis techniques that are new to the food archaeology world, said Greco.
The cheese was probably similar in consistency to chevre, but with a “really, really acidy” bite, according to Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the chemistry and history of cheese.
“It would be high in moisture, it would be spreadable,” he said. “It would not last long, it would spoil very quickly.”
Kindstedt said others have discovered traces of older cheese or yogurt (the two can be difficult to distinguish), Kindstedt said.
“Other groups have done a lot of work with extracting lipid residues, fat residues, from ancient pots going back as far as 7000 B.C.,” he said.
But he told The New York Times such residues needed to be examined with “modern capabilities” and the new research stood out through its use of a state-of-the-art analysis.
The results revealed the sample was a dairy product made by mixing cow and goat or sheep milk, researchers said.
“This is a very important find in the archaeological world,” Greco said. “It is not common to find cheese samples after thousands of years because of its high perishability.”
The analysis also suggested the cheese was contaminated with a bacterium that causes brucellosis, a potentially deadly disease that spreads from animals to people. The disease is typically contracted from eating unpasteurized dairy products.
Greco said researchers already have information about the disease in ancient Egypt, but evidence has only ever come from the analysis of mummy bones, making this find the first of its kind.
The type of cheese was not identified in the study, but such a discovery would have been too gouda to be true.