Aged cheese usually refers to a cheese stored for a few months or years in a cave or cellar. But the newest candidate for oldest cheese in the world was inadvertently aged for over 3,600 years...in a grave.
After strange clumps were found on the chest and necks of mummies, found in the Taklamakan Desert and buried during the Bronze Age, a team of chemists took a closer look and found the clumps to be a cheese product. The bits of cheese were preserved because of the arid conditions, and also because of the way the bodies were buried—under overturned wooden boats, wrapped tightly in cowhide. (Andrej Shevchenko, the study's lead author, described this to USA TODAY as "vacuum-packed.") The combination sealed the bodies and their possessions from the elements, keeping them incredibly well-preserved.
The cheese left on the mummies wasn't like most of the cheese you'd find in a supermarket—but it also wasn't so different from kefir, a soft, yogurt-like cheese that's increasingly popular in America.
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.
You have to wonder how it would taste after millenia. Tangy, probably.