A 2700-year-old human excrement from the Hallstatt salt mines revealed some interesting facts about the dietary habits of ancient people.
The incredibly intact feces from the Iron Age found by a team of researchers contain fungi used in food fermentation, which is proof that these miners were eating blue cheese and drinking beer 27 centuries ago.
The findings, which were shared in the Current Biology journal, report a number of paleofeces samples found in an Austrian World Heritage site called Hallstatt salt mines. They were able to remain well-preserved due to a constant stream of mild temperatures with high salt concentrations, which gave researchers valuable insights into the diet and gut microbiome of the people of that time.
“Molecular and microscopic investigations revealed that the miner’s diet was mainly composed of cereals, such as domesticated wheats (emmer and spelt), barley, common millets, and foxtail millets,” the team wrote in their paper. “This carbohydrate-rich diet was supplemented with proteins from broad beans and occasionally with fruits, nuts, or animal products.”
Due to the mines having been occupied for more than 2000 years, the researchers were able to study gut microbiome changes in human populations over extended periods of time. And that is how they found out about the incredible consistency of the miners’ diet all the way up to the 18th century.
One of the most interesting differences between the Iron Age miner and the 18th-century miners’ diet is the form in which legumes and cereals were ingested. According to the team, the Iron Age miner’s diet consisted of eating grains in the form of gruel or porridge, while their more modern counterparts ate them in the form of bread and biscuits.
Fermented foods and drinks
The most shocking discovery was the fungi DNA found in the excrement samples. Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae DNA were found, which translates to the consumption of fermented foods and drinks.
Penicillium roqueforti is normally used in the making of blue cheese and the researchers note that this is the earliest evidence of this kind of cheese production in Europe. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a yeast used to for alcohol fermentation and with the presence of a number of grains, the experts believe these ancients used it to make beer.
Frank Maixner, an author on the new study, says:
“Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in food fermentation and provide the first molecular evidence for blue cheese and beer consumption during Iron Age Europe. The Hallstatt miners seem to have intentionally applied food fermentation technologies with microorganisms which are still nowadays used in the food industry.”
Ancient faeces samples found in an Austrian salt mine have traces of the fungus that gives blue cheese its distinctive taste and the yeast used to brew beer https://t.co/5mgZXoZs9s
— New Scientist (@newscientist) October 13, 2021
An unexpected level of complexity and sophistication
These findings prove how increasingly sophisticated paleofeces microbiome analysis techniques are, allowing for such detailed insights into our forefathers’ dietary habits.
Kerstin Kowarik, from the Museum of Natural History Vienna, and co-author of the study said:
“These results shed substantial new light on the life of the prehistoric salt miners in Hallstatt and allow an understanding of ancient culinary practices in general on a whole new level. It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric culinary practices sophisticated, but also that complex processed foodstuffs as well as the technique of fermentation have held a prominent role in our early food history.”
What are your thoughts on these findings? Let us know by joining the conversation in the comments and please share this article if you’ve found it of value.