Cheese found in an Egyptian tomb is at least 3,200 years old

The white lump contained signs of a bacteria that causes the infectious disease brucellosis

cheese found in Egyptian tomb

SAY CHEESE This lump of 3,200-year-old cheese found in an ancient Egyptian tomb shows signs of having been contaminated with bacteria that cause the disease brucellosis.

Univ. of Catania, Cairo Univ.

What may be the oldest known solid cheese has been found in an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Made from a mixture of cow milk and either sheep or goat milk, the cheese filled a broken clay jar unearthed from a 13th century B.C. tomb for Ptahmes, the mayor of the ancient city of Memphis, researchers report online July 25 in Analytical Chemistry.

Chemist Enrico Greco, who did the work while at the University of Catania in Italy, and colleagues used mass spectrometry to analyze the antique cheese — now a white, soapy lump weighing “several hundred grams.” Besides milk and whey proteins, the cheese contained remnants of bacteria that cause an infection called brucellosis, adding to evidence that ancient Egyptians may have grappled with the disease, Greco says.

Cheese making predates the new find by thousands of years, but preserved cheese is hard to come by (SN: 1/26/13, p. 16). Archaeologists found older curds draped around the necks of Bronze Age mummies in China, a different group of researchers reported in 2014 in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “There are other samples of dairy products in the literature, but not solid cheeses in the strict sense,” Greco says.

He says he did not sniff the cheese, but given its degraded state it is unlikely to have an odor, pleasant or not.

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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