Tag Archives: whey

The World’s Oldest Cheese

Eight years ago I was cloistered away in my little apartment working on my master’s thesis in Late Antiquity and Early Medieval History. I spent months obsessively documenting silk trade, technology, and fashion as it moved both west and east throughout the Eurasian continent. Now you may be asking yourself what in the world does ancient silk trade and fashion have to do with the world’s oldest cheese? I beg your patience, dear reader. I will get to the cheese, but first let me tell you about one of the peoples I researched and wrote about in my sleep-deprived, madness-inducing, thesis writing experience. Some of what follows will be directly from my thesis, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Sericulture, Silk Trade, and Sartorial Exchange Along the Silk Road Prior to the First Crusade (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas, 2006), while some is new research. Since I have no personal pictures of the mummies, I will link to websites that do have pictures (let them worry about copyright infringement!). Unfortunately, I seem to find the best pictures on some of what I as a scholar deem to be less than reputable sites. I know that the pictures and maps are accurate because of all the actual reputable sources I’ve seen the same pictures in over the years, but I suppose that many academics use their photos to publish in peer-reviewed journals and books rather than websites.

Modern Day

In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, the westernmost part of the country, many well preserved mummies were unearthed between the late 1930’s and 2009. The mummies had been buried near various settlements around the edge of the Taklamakan Desert of the Tarim Basin over a thousand year period between 2000 BCE and 400 BCE. Some burial locations seem to have been chosen because the soil was infertile. This infertility was caused by geological formations of salt beds. Once buried, these bodies dried out in the desert heat and were freeze-dried during the winter. The salt beds also acted to preserve the bodies in them so well that thousands of years later their face paint is still visible and their clothing remains vibrant and whole. One of the most surprising things about these mummies, who had lived and died in the very heart of Central Asia, is that the oldest ones were Caucasian. It has not been definitively established why these people were so far east, though it is likely that they had followed their herds grazing their way along the steppe.

The textiles found on and around the mummies were analyzed by Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber, an expert in ancient textiles and a professor of linguistics and archeology at Occidental College in California, and Dr. Irene Good, a specialist in the laboratory analysis of ancient fibers and textiles from the University of Pennsylvania. During their research, many similarities were found between the textiles buried with the Tarim mummies and those uncovered in the Celtic Hallstatt civilization, a culture that prospered in what are now southern Germany, western Hungary, and Austria, between 900 BCE and 500 BCE. The Hallstatt civilization is named for the area in Austria where the first discoveries of this culture were found buried in salt mines (not unlike the salt beds in which the Tarim mummies were interred).

These far-flung burial finds may seem unrelated, however they actually demonstrate an ancient trade network had formed, or had begun to form, several centuries before the Silk Road was officially established during the Han Dynasty (205 BCE to 220 CE).

The Small River Cemetery, or Xiaohe Mudi, was originally excavated in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman, but its location was forgotten for nearly 70 years. In 2000, the cemetery was rediscovered and archeologists and looters raced to uncover its secrets. Between 2003 – 2005, a group of Chinese archaeologists completed the excavation of the entire necropolis at Xiaohe.

The bodies were buried in coffins shaped like overturned boats. The body was placed on the ground and the two sides of the coffin were fitted around the corpse. Next, planks that were made to fit the boat-shaped coffin were laid across the top. Then a few oxen were slaughtered, perhaps as part of a sacrificial funeral rite, and skinned at the cemetery. The coffin was then covered with the ox hides which shrunk to fit the coffin in the desert heat, like shrink wrap. Because of this, the coffins and the bodies inside were pristine. Not even a grain of sand managed to get into the sealed coffins until they were opened, either by the archaeologists or looters. The Xiaohe people were buried dressed in lovely wool clothing, leather boots, with ephedra twigs, tamarisk branches, jade beads (the nearest contemporary jade production was 300 miles away!), feathers, well-crafted baskets, wheat and barley grains, and cow and sheep/goat ears. In addition, on some of the mummies they discovered an organic compound placed in lumps around the mummies’ necks. A few also had an organic substance in baskets near their waists.

Okay, so what about the cheese? No one knows for sure when cheese was first made. There have been sieve-like vessels discovered in Eastern Europe that have been tested and found to contain traces of milk proteins. Some of these specimens are 7,000 years old! Despite this, no examples of intact ancient cheese have been found until the lumps of organic compounds on the Xiaohe mummies.

Ancient Times

To figure out how cheese got that far east we have to go back pretty far in our pre-history, to where dairy production began. On what we now know as the Eurasian or Russian steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas, there was a group of people who spoke a common language that we call Proto-Indo-European. Now we have no written records from this era in this region, writing hadn’t been invented yet, so we have to look at the archaeological record and at the common language that modern scholars have been able to piece together.

Indo-European is the language family that includes English, German, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Swedish, Hindi, Persian, Celtic, and Tocharian, to name a few. The ancestors to all the speakers of the Indo-European languages today, the Proto-Indo-European speaking peoples, began as foragers in the river valleys north of the Black and Caspian Seas around 5200 -5000 BCE. Apart from the river valleys most of the steppes were not a good place for farming, so they relied on the foods they could hunt and gather, like wild plants and nuts, wild boar, fish, wild horses and sheep, and the wild aurochs (the largest bovine to walk the earth).

The grasslands of the Russian steppe are much like our American plains, but these early ancestors did not have the agricultural advancements that the American settlers had (and a great many of those American settlers still died of starvation). There are no plants that grow there that are edible for humans, but there are 3,000 miles of open grasslands. What they could grow on the grasslands were animals: cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.

Cattle, goat, and sheep domestication was revolutionary! People went from a communal, hunter-gatherer society where social status would have been dictated according to who the best hunter was or who could always find the best berries to one where social status depended on how many cattle or sheep one owned. These animals not only produced meat, but hides and wool for clothing and tents, and milk.

The next important animal to have been domesticated was the horse. Horses were originally kept as food, but eventually people learned that they could ride them. Soon after the horse was domesticated the wheeled cart was invented around 3300 – 3100 BCE. This allowed the Proto-Indo-Europeans to move not only their herds when they had exhausted their food supply, but whole tribes – they became nomads.

At this point in human evolution no one was able to tolerate lactose (milk sugar). The first cheese was probably a happy accident: something acidic curdled the milk (possibly stored in a bag made from an animal stomach), the lactose-heavy whey drained away and left lovely curds. The discovery of milk fermentation was just as revolutionary as the domestication of animals. Now the Indo-Europeans had access to a steady and prolific supply of protein that did not require the death of an animal. This nutritional increase resulted in these ancient people becoming physically larger than their contemporaries without access to dairy protein. This would have led to increased population growth. And as populations grow, eventually parts of those populations break off and find new herding lands – thus we have the beginnings of the Indo-European diaspora. It was one of these nomadic Indo-European peoples, the Tocharians, who traveled east with their herds.

The scholars who study languages, etymologists and philologists, were able to determine approximately when certain languages, and the peoples who spoke them, left the original Indo-European group due to how much the languages changed over time. According to David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, it is quite likely that the Tocharians were the second group to leave the Proto-Indo-European homeland (the first to leave home were the Hittites). The descendants of these early explorers left written records in their abandoned settlements in the Tarim Basin. When analyzed the languages, Tocharian A and B, were closely linked to the Celtic language.

The Science

[DISCLAIMER: I am not a scientist. I have done my best to interpret the science for those, like me, who did not take chemistry or microbiology in college. To get serious details please see the Proteomics Evidence article cited below.]

So let’s look again at the organic compounds found on the Xiaohe mummies. The lumps were approximately 1 – 2 cm in diameter with a chunky texture. The scientists took 5 – 15 mg samples from 12 organic lumps found in ten different graves. They took each sample, ground it down to powder, added a bunch of chemicals I’ve never heard of to them and eventually got them to where they could analyze them. The proteomic (protein) analysis, Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometry (FTIR) characterization, ion chromatography, and elemental composition analyses led them to believe that what they were looking at cheese made mostly from cows’ milk, though there were some goat or sheep milk mixed in some samples. Due to the differences in exactly which caseins and proteins remained in the ancient samples, the scientists realized that the cheese was not made with rennet nor by acidification. Therefore, they looked at milk fermentation and found that the Xiaohe samples contained proteins from lactic acid bacteria (LAB) which included Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens and various Saccharomycetaceae yeasts which are commonly found in kefir.

Commercial raw milk and kefir grains (Caucasian and Tibetan) were obtained and the scientists made kefir cheese by pouring pasteurized, non-homogenated cow milk over the kefir grains and letting them sit at room temperature for 72 hours. Then the whey was strained off the curds resulting in yummy cheese. The milk, kefir grains, and kefir cheese were each dried in a vacuum centrifuge and processed the same way the organic compounds from the graves were.

When the compositions of the modern samples and the ancient samples were compared it was determined that L. kefiranofaciens was the predominant source of LAB proteins in ten of the twelve Xiaohe samples. The yeast proteins were from Candida kefir (aka Kluyveromyces marxianus) and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. These yeasts are the ones found in modern Tibetan kefir. The scientists concluded that ten of the twelve ancient samples were kefir cheese.

The two Xiaohe samples that were not kefir cheese were found in the same grave, M13. The M13 samples were placed like the others, around the neck and in a basket near the waist. The samples were both dairy products made of raw milk, but did not contain LAB. They did, however, contain mold. Whether the M13 samples were another type of cheese, the article did not say. The scientists “concluded that the protein composition that we attributed to Xiaohe kefir cheeses is a bona fide dairy practice hallmark and that it did not arise spontaneously from unprocessed milk over thousands of years.”

Due to the low salt content of the Xiaohe kefir cheeses, the scientists also speculated that the cheeses were made to be eaten relatively quickly, rather than being stored long term or traded across long distances. The low levels of lipids seem to indicate that the raw milk may have been skimmed. Although there was no evidence of butter production (butter is made from cream) at Xiaohe, that does not mean anything. The cemetery is many miles away from the nearest known contemporary human settlements.


Due to the linguistic, textile, and DNA evidence of the early Tarim Basin mummies, we know that these ancient Tocharians were the easternmost branch of the Indo-European family tree, long-lost cousins to the Celts. They participated in dairy herding and long-distance trade. They had sophisticated textile and basket weaving techniques. And they had a rich funerary practice. The food they preferred, perhaps the food that enabled them to live in one of the most inhospitable climates that humans have ever continuously survived in, that let them cross thousands of miles of grasslands, and that accompanied the dead on their final journey was simple, delicious kefir cheese.

We still don’t know exactly where kefir grains originated but since the ancient Tocharians had the kind that we know as Tibetan kefir grains, we can only speculate that they perhaps traded for them somewhere in their wanderings. Since they were trading with peoples in every direction (for evidence of that you probably need to read all the sources in the bibliography below), it may have been the Tocharians or some of their Indo-European cousins on the steppes that brought the knowledge of kefir to the west. Perhaps in time the desert will reveal more of its secrets.


Anthony, David W. The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Mummies of Ürümchi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. Reprinted, London: Pan Books, 2000.

Hansen, Stephanie D., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Sericulture, Silk Trade, and Sartorial Exchange Along the Silk Road Prior to the First Crusade. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas, 2006.

Mair, Victor H. “Mummies of the Tarim Basin.” Archaeology, 48:2 (Mar/Apr 1995), 28 – 35.

Mair, Victor. “The Rediscovery and Complete Excavation of Ördek’s Necropolis.” The Journal of Indo-European Studies. Vol 34, No 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2006), 273 – 318.

Shavit, Elinoar. “Medicinal Mushrooms: Renewed Interest in Kefir, the Ancient Elixir of Longevity.” Fungi Vol 1:2 (Summer 2008), 14 – 18.

Stroud, Kevin. The History of English Podcast. http://historyofenglishpodcast.com, 2014.

Thomson, Helen and Adam Cole. “Archaeologists Find Ancient Evidence Of Cheese-Making” on National Public Radio. December 13, 2012. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/12/13/167034734/archaeologists-find-ancient-evidence-of-cheese-making, 2014.

Yang, Yimin, et al. “Proteomics evidence for kefir dairy in Early Bronze Age China.” Journal of Archaeological Science 45 (2014), 178 – 186.

Getting the Most Out of a Half Gallon of Cream & Three Cabbages

I am happy that in my state I can buy raw milk and cream. After tasting raw milk the first time I knew I would never be happy drinking pasteurized milk again! The cream is also wonderfully delicious. It isn’t as thick as the ultra-pasteurized heavy whipping cream that I used to buy, but it is luscious and naturally sweet. I can only buy it in half-gallon jugs, though. The ultra-pasteurized stuff will stay good in the fridge for over a month, the raw cream goes off a good bit sooner than that. There’s only so much creme brûlée and ice cream my hubby and I can eat so I had to find another way to use this amazing product.

I had seen a pin on Pinterest about making butter in a stand mixer, so I decided to try it. I did some research and found that in some traditional societies, the cream was allowed to go off before making butter out of it. The enzymes released when the cream begins to sour makes digestion easier on us and gives a nice flavor to the butter. So the next time I bought a half-gallon of cream, I let it go sour then put it in my stand mixer, covered it with a towel, set it on high speed and let it go. With the raw cream it took about twenty minutes for it to first turn into whipped cream and then separate into butter and buttermilk.

The buttermilk is not the cultured buttermilk that you can buy in stores – it is true buttermilk. My grandparents and great grandparents always ate cornbread crumbled up in their buttermilk, but I never did like it. But now I know that’s because it was the nasty cultured stuff. Real buttermilk has tiny flecks of butter that melt on your tongue as soon as they touch it. It is amazing! You can save your buttermilk and enjoy drinking it (I made cornbread from scratch and gorged myself on it with my buttermilk for a day or so).

But what if you really aren’t interested in buttermilk? There is another option. You can slowly heat the buttermilk to 180 degrees Fahrenheit (stirring constantly), add about three drops of liquid renet and watch the liquid separate into curds & whey. Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth or a clean tea towel, set the colander over a bowl and pour the curds & whey into the cheesecloth. Leave the curds to drain for about an hour (less if you want them soft). Save the whey in jars for use later. Add a little salt to the curds and fresh herbs if you like. The cheese is a bit like ricotta, but I ate mine with gluten-free crackers.

Fresh cheese and butter from half gallon of cream.
Fresh cheese and butter from half gallon of cream.

I had about 2 1/2 quarts of whey left over. Whey is an amazing liquid! It is highly nutritious (this is where the whey protein many people use in their protein shakes come from). It is also great for food preservation. In Medieval Iceland, it was saved in barrels and fermented for a year or two and drank in lieu of ale. And it is good for the compost if you can’t figure out what else to do with it. I wanted to make lacto-fermented sauerkraut. It is less smelly and easier than traditional fermented sauerkraut.

At my local farmers market I found the most fantastic cabbage. Three of these heads filled a large trash bag and I looked like Santa hauling these babies to my car. I washed and cut the cabbage small enough to fit in my food processor and shredded it into tiny bits.

One giant head of cabbage.
One giant head of cabbage.

For Traditional Sour Kraut the ingredients are as follows:
1 head cabbage, shredded
1 Tbsp Kosher salt
4 Tbsp whey
1 Tbsp Caraway Seeds

For Latin American Sour Kraut the recipe is as follows:
1 head cabbage, shredded
1 cup carrots, shredded
1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 Tbsp Kosher salt
1 Tbsp dried oregano
4 Tbsp whey
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Ingredients for Latin American Sour Kraut.
Ingredients for Latin American Sour Kraut.

I mixed the ingredients together in a very large bowl (I used a 6 quart bowl) and pounded it with a stone pestal (you can also use a kitchen mallet) till the juices started flowing, about 8-10 minutes. This reduced the cabbage mixture from 6 quarts to 4 quarts.

Pounding away at the kraut mixture.
Pounding away at the kraut mixture.

After my arms were tired, I spooned the kraut into jars. Then push the solids down far enough to let the juice rise above the top. Make sure to leave an inch of empty space at the top. Don’t forget this step!

Press the kraut underneath the juice.
Press the kraut underneath the juice.

Leave the jars sitting on your counter at room temperature for three days. After this you can put the jars in the refrigerator. It lasts months in cold storage. Don’t worry about the green juice, it clears up as it ferments.
So, from a half-gallon of cream, three heads of cabbage and a few more minor ingredients, you can enjoy around 16 Tbsps of fresh butter, around 2/3 cup of fresh cheese, and nine quarts of sauerkraut! I still have one quart of whey left. I think I’ll get some more cabbage or something else to ferment for the winter.

UPDATE (5/10/15):

I made a LOT of fermented veggies since that first experiment making  sauerkraut. I have come to prefer to fermented veggies without the whey. Whey is a great booster for folks fermenting veggies in the far north, like Maine or Scandinavia, but for where I live in the American South, it is unnecessary. The whey speeds up the time it takes to get fermentation started, but here in South Carolina I usually start seeing bubbles form after 12-24 hours (depending on the temperature and the particular vegetables being fermented). Another reason I’ve stopped using whey is that it imparts a flavor that I am not very fond of. In addition, I find that the time I listed, 3 days, isn’t really long enough for the veggies to ferment for my taste. I now leave things fermenting from one week to two months. You can start tasting your ferment after three days, if you’d like and keep trying it every day or two until the flavor is where you want it, then put it in the fridge to slow it down. So get to a farmers market (or better yet, your garden), grab some fresh veggies, and ferment them!