Don’t cut the cheese: 3,200-year-old Egyptian snack could have deadly disease

WASHINGTON — Researchers in Italy have discovered what 3,200 years in an ancient Egyptian tomb will do to cheese. As it turns out, nothing good.

To the untrained eye, the ancient cheese looks like little more than an unappetizing mass of white mush, more like wet concrete that an edible dairy product.

Pulled from the tomb of the late Ptahmes, 13th-century BC mayor of Memphis, Egypt, and still encased in the broken jar it was packed into, it hasn’t fared well through all those years locked away in the depths of the desert earth.

But for Dr. Enrico Greco, an Italian researcher who led an effort to chemically analyze what his team called “probably the most ancient archaeological solid residue of cheese ever found to date,” the expired snack is just as much a snapshot of the distant past as it is a culinary curiosity.

“The archaeologists suspected it was a kind of food left for the owner of the tomb and they decided to ask for chemical analyses,” Dr. Greco of Sicily’s University of Catania told Australian media.

According to Greco, cheese was already known to be used in ancient Egyptian medicine, though the new discovery helped provide insight its role in daily life.

Apart from an unsightly dairy product, researchers also found something else in the cheese that piqued their interest — something potentially deadly.

They found signs of a bacterium known in modern medicine to cause brucellosis, a highly contagious disease that can be transmitted from infected animals to humans through unpasteurized meat and dairy products. Death from the illness is rare, but not unheard of.

Greco’s cheese was dated back to Egypt’s 19th dynasty, thousands of years before the scientific basis of pasteurization, food safety and even germ theory would be conceived.

Brucellosis outbreaks still occur today — and, if corroborated by other researchers, the infected cheese would be the oldest evidence of the disease on record.

As for the taste: Greco couldn’t say.

“We do not have much information on what the taste could be, we know it was made mostly from sheep’s and goat’s milk, but for me, it’s really hard to imagine a specific flavor.”

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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