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Archaeology.org
Source: Proof Positive   

Baking bread, ancient Egypt

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Topic Ancient Cheese

Remains discovered with mummies in China prove to be oldest known samples of cheese.

Vintage Gouda may be aged for five years, some cheddar for a decade. They’re both under-ripe youngsters compared with yellowish clumps – found on the necks and chests of Chinese mummies – now revealed to be the world’s oldest cheese.

The Chinese cheese dates back as early as 1615 BC, making it by far the most ancient ever discovered. Thanks to the quick decay of most dairy products, there isn’t even a runner-up. The world’s best-aged cheese seems to be a lactose-free variety that was quick and convenient to make and may have played a role in the spread of herding and dairying across Asia.

“We not only identified the product as the earliest known cheese, but we also have direct … evidence of ancient technology,” says study author Andrej Shevchenko, an analytical chemist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. The method was “easy, cheap … It’s a technology for the common people.”

The cheese, like the mummies, owes its existence to the extraordinary conditions at Small River Cemetery Number 5, in northwestern China. First documented by a Swedish archaeologist in the 1930s, it sits in the fearsome Taklamakan Desert, one of the world’s largest. A mysterious Bronze Age people buried dozens of their own atop a large sand dune near a now-dry river, interring their kin underneath what looks like large wooden boats. The boats were wrapped so snugly with cowhide that it’s as if they’d been “vacuum-packed,” Shevchenko says.

The combination of dry desert air and salty soil prevented decay to an extraordinary degree. The remains and grave goods were freeze-dried, preserving the light-brown hair and strangely non-Asian facial features of the dead along with their felt hats, wool capes and leather boots. Analysis of the plant seeds and animal tissues in the tombs showed the burials date to 1450 to 1650 BC.

Some of the bodies had oddly shaped crumbs on their necks and chests. By analyzing the proteins and fats in these clumps, Shevchenko and his colleagues determined that they’re definitely cheese, not butter or milk. It’s not clear why people were buried with bits of cheese on their bodies, Shevchenko says, though perhaps it was food for the afterlife.

The analysis also showed the mummies’ cheese was made by combining milk with a “starter,” a mix of bacteria and yeast. This technique is still used today to make kefir, a sour, slightly effervescent dairy beverage, and kefir cheese, similar to cottage cheese.

If the people of the cemetery did indeed rely on a kefir starter to make cheese, they were contradicting the conventional wisdom. Most cheese today is made not with a kefir starter but with rennet, a substance from the guts of a calf, lamb or kid that curdles milk. Cheese was supposedly invented by accident when humans began carrying milk in bags made of animal gut.

Making cheese with rennet requires the killing of a young animal, Shevchenko points out, and the kefir method does not. He argues that the ease and low cost of the kefir method would have helped drive the spread of herding throughout Asia from its origins in the Middle East. Even better, both kefir and kefir cheese are low in lactose, making them edible for the lactose-intolerant inhabitants of Asia. The new results are reported in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Scientists have found fragments of cheese-making strainers in Poland that date back more than 7,000 years, and there are Danish pots from 5,000 years ago that hold what may be butter or cheese, says bioarchaeologist Oliver Craig of the University of York in Britain. But he agrees that Shevchenko’s team has good evidence that their cheese is the record-holder for age.

Craig is more cautious about the new study’s suggestion that the cheese was made with kefir starter rather than rennet. That’s harder to prove, he says, because the proteins could have decayed too much to provide a definitive answer. He thinks a study of animal bones or pottery is needed to confirm that the cheese at the cemetery was part of a technological spread across Asia.

Whether the cheese was common in its day, it’s exceptional now. Usually if a dairy product is left to its own devices, “bacteria will get in and start to eat it away, liquefy it,” Craig says. “It’s just amazing it survived.”

Original article:
USA today
By Traci Watson, Special for USA TODAY 4:24 p.m. EST February 25, 2014

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Topic: Beer

One of the oldest microbreweries in history has been found in Cyprus and University of Manchester archaeologists are raising a glass to their ‘healthy’ discovery.

Microbreweries may be an inviting and trendy way to explore the world’s kookiest ales, beers and beyond, but researchers have now discovered that our ancestors were supping different flavoured concoctions three-and-a half-thousand years ago as a safer alternative to bread and water.

The team who excavated the two by two metre domed mud-plaster structure, led by Dr Lindy Crewe, have demonstrated it was used as a kiln to dry malt to make beer.

According to Dr Crewe, beers of different flavours would have been brewed from malted barley and fermented with yeasts with an alcoholic content of around 5%. The yeast would have either been wild or produced from fruit such as grape or fig.

She said: “Archaeologists believe beer drinking was an important part of society from the Neolithic onwards and may have even been the main reason that people began to cultivate grain in the first place.

“But it’s extremely rare to find the remains of production preserved from thousands of years ago so we’re very excited.

“The excavation of the malting kiln with associated sets of pottery types and tools left in place gives us a fantastic opportunity to look at Bronze Age toolkits and figure out techniques and recipes.”

The oven discovered by the archaeologists was positioned at one end of a 50 metre square courtyard with a plastered floor.

They found grinding tools and mortars which may have been used to break down the grain after it was malted, a small hearth and cooking pots made of clay to cook the beer gently.

They also found juglets, which they believe probably contained yeast additives or sweeteners to produce beers of different strengths or flavours. The beers’ ingredients were found by the team as carbonised seeds.

She added: “Beer was commonly drunk because it is more nutritious than bread and less likely to contain harmful pathogens than drinking water which can make you ill.

“But alcoholic beverages were also used to oil the wheels of business and pleasure in much the same way as today: work brought communities together for tasks such as bringing in the harvest or erecting special buildings.

“Instead of payment, participants are rewarded with a special feast, often involving quantities of alcohol, which also transformed the work from a chore into a social event.

“The people of the Bronze Age, it seems, were well aware of the relaxing properties of alcohol.”

An experimental archaeology team, led by Ian Hill of HARP Archaeology, recreated the drying kiln using traditional techniques, to test Dr Crewe’s theory in August .

The modern version used hot air to produce a temperature of 65° C – perfect conditions for heating and drying grains but still preserving it’s enzymes and proteins.

He said: “After the beers had been strained, we felt they were all pretty drinkable, though some varieties were better than others.

“The grape was less pleasant – a bit too sweet– the outcomes are less reliable when using wild yeasts, compared to brewers yeast, but the fig beer was definitely the most popular.”

Original article:
By dean Wilkins
mancunianmatters.co.uk

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