This 3,200 Year Old Egyptian Cheese Is Cursed With a Deadly Pathogen
The cheese, made from both cow and sheep/goat milk, is contaminated with infectious bacteria.
Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cheese lovers know that the most flavorful cheeses are often aged for a period of months or even years. But that’s nothing compared to the gnarly cheese residue archeologists found in the tomb of Ptahmes, mayor of the Egyptian city Memphis in the 13th century BC, who apparently loved cheese so much he was entombed with it.
Dating back 3,200 years, the residue is the oldest solid cheese ever identified, according to a study about the discovery in Analytical Chemistry.
This off-white dairy product was found about five years ago, during excavations of Ptahmes’ enormous tomb, which contains many storerooms and chambers. This ancient structure was first discovered in 1885, but in a fairy tale twist, the tomb was lost to the world for over a century after desert sands submerged it. In 2010, it was rediscovered in the Saqqara burial ground and archeologists began to explore the site once more.
The cheesy remains were found inside a jar in one of the chambers during the 2013-2014 excavation season. The food was enclosed with a canvas fabric that may have been wrapped around it for preservation.
To figure out its chemical components, a team led by Enrico Greco, a chemical scientist at Catania University in Italy, dissolved the residue into its constituent peptides and examined them using mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography. These techniques revealed that the cheese was made from a mixture of cow milk and goat/sheep milk.
While that sounds yummy, it would be a bad idea to chow down on these cheese bits. Greco’s team also found evidence that this ancient snack-pack is contaminated by Brucella melitensis bacteria.
These bugs cause the infectious disease brucellosis, also known as Malta fever, which is contracted from unpasteurized dairy products or raw meat. Symptoms of brucellosis include night sweats, muscle pains, and death if not treated with antibiotics. Indeed, the pathogen is so devastating that the US Army developed it as a biological weapon at Pine Bluff Arsenal during the 1950s.
In other words, let Ptahmes keep his expired cheese.
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