The Oldest Aged Kefir Cheese and the Tarim River Basin Mummies of Xiaohe Mudi in Northwest China

by DerdriuMarriner

Cheese claims a longer shelf life than milk. Some consumers enjoy aged cheese. The world cheese-aging record is held by northwest China’s 3,600+-year-old Tarim River Basin mummies.

*****

Food can be counted on to make a person’s day. As comfort food, comestibles cheer the stressed and energize the tired. As mealtime fare, edibles fill the gaps when conversation flags.

But in the same settings, food is guaranteed to break the day -- and in the worst case scenario to end the life -- of consumers who have allergies and intolerances.
• For example, dairy products leave the bearers of low or no levels of lactase digestive enzymes with an embarrassment of gastrointestinal reactions.
• Such symptoms may be more persistent among the historically lactose-intolerant populations of extreme climates.

They must not have been prevalent among northwest China’s Tarim River Basin makers of the world’s oldest preserved cheeses.

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Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

northwestern China
northwestern China

 

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region constitutes the northwesternmost extension of the People’s Republic of China in both bio-geographical and politico-administrative terms. The regional division contains the Gurbantünggüt, Kumtag, and Taklamakan Deserts. But in this southwestern portion of Xinjiang, place names whose spellings begin with the letter “T” serendipitously define the land and dominate the people. The three deserts indeed have in common proximity to the Tarim River Basin and the Tien Shan Mountains. They also include in their bio-histories outposts and stops along ancient China’s two-way Silk and Horse Trade Routes. It nevertheless is the geological interaction between the Taklamakan, the Tarim, and the Tien Shan which emerges most unforgettably in the existence and memories of ancient civilizations. 

 

Tarim Basin in the 3rd century C.E.

Created with Inkscape
Created with Inkscape

 

The Tarim historically acts as one of Xinjiang’s natural attractions. The river claims dual titles as the region’s iconic water body and the Republic’s longest inland river. Waters converge to form and replenish the Tarim at:

  • The source rivers -- the Aksu from the north, the Khotan from the south, and the Yarkand from the southwest;
  • The tributary rivers, the Kashgar and the Muzat from the north.

But mountains define the river’s course and volume. The Tarim follows an easterly course of shifting banks and beds because of:

  • Rain shadows cast by the drying, leeward side of the Himalayan Mountain Range;
  • Sandwich effects from the Kunlun Shan to the south and the Tien Shan to the north.

 

Salt cedar (Tamarix ramosissima): Tarim River flora

Old World shrub native to Asia and Europe
Old World shrub native to Asia and Europe

 

The Tarim River Basin additionally claims as the internal drainage system’s prevailing geography and geology:

  • Arid plains;
  • Ethane-, methane-, natural gas-, petroleum-, and propane-rich sedimentary rocks;
  • Salt lakes and marshes;
  • Sand dunes and massifs;
  • Sandy deserts;
  • Wooded foothills and valleys.

Soils encourage forests, meadows, and peatlands. Vegetation exists as:

  • Flowering plants (Apocynum venetum [dogbane], Glycyrrhiza inflata [licorice], Karelinia caspica [daisy], Lycium ruthenicum [Russian box-thorn], Oxytropis glabra [locoweed];
  • Grasses (Aeluropus pungens, Calamagrostis pseudophragmites);
  • Reeds (Phragmites australis);
  • Sedges (Carex spp, Cyperus spp);
  • Shrubs (Alhagi sparsifolia [camelthorn], Eleagnus spp [silverberry], Halimodendron halimodendron [Russian salt tree], Halostachys caspica [amaranth], Myricaria pulcherrima [tamarisk], Nitraria sibirica [Siberian nitre bush], Tamarix ramossissima [Salt cedar]);
  • Trees (Populus euphratica [Euphrates poplar], Populus pruinosa [White-powdered desert poplar).

 

Halimodendron halodendron: flower ~ Tarim River Basin flora

Århus Botanical Garden, Jutland, Denmark
Århus Botanical Garden, Jutland, Denmark

 

The basin challenges them with yearly rainfall averages of 0.47 inches (12 millimeters). Temperatures freeze the Tarim from December to March. They otherwise head toward 104°F (40°C). The environmental configuration consequently is supportive to:

  • Artifact preservation;
  • Cultural isolation;
  • Garden oases;
  • Natural mummification;
  • Nomadic societies;
  • Pastoral economies;
  • Tribal government;
  • Xeriscape agriculture.

The above-mentioned constellation obtains in the life cycles and natural histories of the mountain-climbing, oasis-hopping, plains-roaming carpenters, chefs, furriers, growers, herders, irrigators, milliners, morticians, shamans, shoemakers, tailors, and weavers whose remains fill cemeteries proximitous to:

  • Beifang Mudi;
  • Cherchen;
  • Hami;
  • Loulan;
  • Subeixi;
  • Xiaohe Mudi.

 

Loulan's #5 cemetery, northeastern edge of Lop Desert, eastern end of Tarim River Basin, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

Also known as Small River Cemetery, the sandy necropolis is dotted with hundreds of 13-foot (3.9- meter) tall poles.
northwestern China
northwestern China

 

Xiaohe Mudi historically carries the names of:

  • Ördek’s Necropolis;
  • (Small River) Cemetery Number 5.

Its non-Chinese designations come from Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman (1902 – 1946), as:

  • Han Dynasty-dated, Juyan Region-buried, wood-stripped manuscript discover, 1930 – 1931;
  • Sino-Swedish Northwest China Scientific Inspection Team expeditioner along with Stockholm-born Swedish explorer Dr. Sven Anders Hedin (February 19, 1865 – November 26, 1952);
  • Xiaohe tomb complex explorer, 1934.

The four millennia-old cemetery conserves:

  • Arrow shaft-like, poplar-carved, two feather-tufted pegs;
  • Blade- or oar-ended, poplar-carved, red ochre-painted, tomb-marking posts;
  • Bunched grasses, yellow hemp (Ephedra sinica) twigs;
  • Cowhide-covered, overturned boat-like, poplar coffins;
  • Mummified, fringed loincloth-donned men and fringed skirt-dressed women sporting felt caps, leather boots or moccasins, plaited or woven belts, and woven mantles;
  • Plaited baskets.

 

Folke Bergstrom: "All the colour of the exposed part of the posts has of course disappeared. Once, however, this Columned Hall of the Dead was glowing in bright red colour...for magic reasons, red being the colour of blood, i.e. life. Red ochre was used."

"there were a lot of strange, curved, heavy planks, and everywhere one stumbled across withered human bones, scattered skeletons, remains of dismembered mummies, and rags of thick woolen materials, Pl. IV b." (p. 61-62)
Folke Bergstrom, Archaeological Researches in Sinkiang (1939), Plate IVb, opp. p. 49
Folke Bergstrom, Archaeological Researches in Sinkiang (1939), Plate IVb, opp. p. 49

 

The light-haired, light-skinned, long-nosed, slender-bodied, tall-built mummies articulate ancient, pre-Tarim Basin-mingled European and Siberian ancestries per analyses of:

  • Mitochrondrial DNA;
  • Y chromosomes.

Researchers conjecture as the mummies’ language Tokharian, proximitous to:

  • Celtic linguistically;
  • Indo-European’s Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian geographically.

They consider among the mummies’ missions -- as the wild Tarim River Basin’s lifetime civilizers -- the realization of perfect cheeses. Excavations and investigations since 2002 indeed identify the mummies as pioneers of:

  • Dairy products among lactose-intolerant East Asians;
  • Wheat in barley-planted East Asia.

The recipe of skimmed ruminant milk being curdled by bacteria (Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens) -- not the calf intestine enzyme rennet -- and fermented by yeast, is recognizable as:

  • Cottage cheese-like in consistency;
  • Kefir-like in fermentation method.

 

Tarim Basin inhabitants favored kefir-like fermentation in their cheese-making.

kefir grains
kefir grains

Conclusion

 

Scientists guesstimate that cheese-making occupies a 10,000-year-old niche in the history of human-palatable foods. They identify the emergence of the culinary endeavor with the domestication of sheep around 7500 B.C. Both activities therefore link with the last suspected departure points of the animal-loving of modernizing northwest China’s Tarim River Basin. Experts indeed ponder what artifacts and genetics verify regarding Central Asia’ most mysterious migrants:

  • The Iranian plateau is their last hypothesized exit before their first steps on journeys of thousands of kilometers, miles, and years eastward;
  • The river basin is their last known homeland.

Problem-solving the above two facts’ prequels and sequels undoubtedly requires following ancient, multi-directional trails of:

  • Cheese-making;
  • Fabric-weaving;
  • Horse-riding;
  • Leather-working;
  • Livestock-herding;
  • Oasis-founding;
  • Wheat-growing;
  • Wood-carving.

 

Boat-shaped coffin of Small River Cemetery: 68: Body of mummified young man, resting on his back, was wrapped in yellow-white wool mantle, with wheat grains in small bag tied into mantle near mummy’s head.

Coffin’s lid of 10 short boards were covered by ox-hides “which had apparently been applied in a wet state because…when…hides were removed the lid came off with them. In Pl. VI a…lid with the hides is seen lying to the right of the coffin.” (pp. 68-69)
Folke Bergman, Archaeological Researches in Sinkiang (1939), Plate VI-a, opp. p. 81.
Folke Bergman, Archaeological Researches in Sinkiang (1939), Plate VI-a, opp. p. 81.

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

"A small branch of the dying Small River": about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) east of the river conscientious Swedish explorer-anthropologist Folke Bergman located Cemetery 5, named Ördek’s Necropolis for Ördek, guide for Folke and for explorer Sven Hedin ~

Cemetery 5 rose “as a well-defined landmark above the otherwise flat desert…As one approaches...it seems...covered by a whole forest of upright toghraq [wild poplar] trunks, but...too close together and...too straight to be dead trees." (p. 61)
Folke Bergman, Archaeological Researches in Sinkiang (1939), Plate X-b, opp. p. 93
Folke Bergman, Archaeological Researches in Sinkiang (1939), Plate X-b, opp. p. 93

Conclusion

 

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Xiaohe (Small River) Cemetery 5 reveals passions and patterns of the society whose deceased are buried there:

The kefir-style yogurt makers valued textiles and were buried with flora such as Ephedra sinica (also known as Chinese ephedra or Ma Huang) and wheat.
Ephedra sinica
Ephedra sinica
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

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Updated: 11/15/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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