Anthropology: Ancient feces from an Austrian mine show that people ate beer and blue cheese 2,700 years ago

You will believe the beer! Ancient feces samples recovered from a mine in Austria reveal that people drank beer and ate blue cheese up to 2,700 years ago

  • The excrement was kept in the salt mines of Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut
  • It was analyzed by experts from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies
  • They found that the feces contained spores of two specific types of fungi
  • These are known to be used in the brewing and production of blue cheese










Ancient human excrement unearthed in a mine in Middle Austria has provided evidence that humans drank beer and ate blue cheese some 2,700 years ago.

The fossil samples were kept in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines and were analyzed by experts led by the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies.

The researchers found that the “palaeofaeces” contained spores of two fungal species known to be used in the brewing and manufacture of blue cheese.

Ancient human excrement (pictured) unearthed in a mine in Middle Austria has provided evidence that humans drank beer and ate blue cheese some 2,700 years ago

The fossil samples were kept in the salt mines of Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut (pictured), and were analyzed by experts led by the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

The fossil samples were kept in the salt mines of Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut (pictured), and were analyzed by experts led by the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

The researchers found that the 'palaeofaeces' samples (pictured) contained spores of two fungal species known to be used in the brewing and manufacture of blue cheese

The researchers found that the ‘palaeofaeces’ samples (pictured) contained spores of two fungal species known to be used in the brewing and manufacture of blue cheese

BLUE CHEESE

Blue (or blue) cheese is made using cultures of the fungus Penicillium.

This gives the blue or green spots and veins of the molds throughout the cheese and contributed to the distinct odor – just like the other bacteria that are encouraged to grow on the cheese.

One of these microorganisms, Brevibacterium linen, is also responsible for the odor of human feet and other body odors.

Blue cheeses are often aged in a temperature-controlled environment, such as a cave. Popular varieties include Gorgonzola, Stilton, and Roquefort.

The study was conducted by microbiologist Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy, and his colleagues.

‘Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in food fermentation,’ explains Dr Maixner.

This, he added, provides “the first molecular evidence for the consumption of blue cheese and beer during the Iron Age in Europe.”

In addition to genetic analysis of the fecal matter, the team also conducted in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies, looking at the microbes and proteins preserved in the ancient feces.

From this, the team was able to learn about the diets of the people who lived in the region 2,700 years ago — along with information about their gut microbes, which play an important role in human health.

The researchers’ nutritional study found that the bran and calyxes of several grains were the most abundant plant fragments in the fecal deposits.

This high-fiber, carbohydrate-rich diet appears to be supplemented with protein from fava beans, as well as fruits, nuts, and other animal foods.

In keeping with their plant-based diets, the ancient miners had a gut microbiome composition similar to that of modern, non-Western humans whose consumption is centered around whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables.

The findings the team explained point to a relatively recent shift in the makeup of the Western gut microbiome as eating habits and lifestyles changed.

Expanding microbial research into fungi revealed DNA traces of Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae in one of the Iron Age samples.

“The Hallstatt miners appear to be deliberately applying food fermentation technologies with microorganisms that are still used in the food industry today,” noted Dr. Maxner up.

'Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in food fermentation,' explains Dr Maixner.  This, he added, provides

‘Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in food fermentation,’ explains Dr Maixner. This, he added, provides “the first molecular evidence for the consumption of blue cheese and beer during the Iron Age in Europe.” Pictured: one of the ancient droppings

“These results shed substantially new light on the life of the prehistoric salt mines in Hallstatt and provide insight into ancient culinary practices in general at a whole new level,” said Kerstin Kowarik of Vienna’s Museum of Natural History. Pictured: in the salt mine

“These results shed substantially new light on the life of the prehistoric salt mines in Hallstatt and provide insight into ancient culinary practices in general at a whole new level,” said Kerstin Kowarik of Vienna’s Museum of Natural History.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric culinary practices sophisticated, but that complex processed foods and the technique of fermentation played a prominent role in our early food history.”

The full findings of the study are published in the journal Current Biology.

In addition to genetic analysis of the fecal matter, the team also conducted in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies, looking at the microbes and proteins preserved in the ancient feces.  Pictured: The researchers' DNA lab

In addition to genetic analysis of the fecal matter, the team also conducted in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies, looking at the microbes and proteins preserved in the ancient feces. Pictured: The researchers’ DNA lab

The fossil samples were kept in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines and were analyzed by experts led by the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

The fossil samples were kept in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines and were analyzed by experts led by the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT IRON AGE BRITAIN?

The Iron Age in Britain began when the Bronze Age ended.

It started around 800 BC and ended in 43 AD when the Romans invaded.

As the name suggests, this period saw large-scale changes thanks to the introduction of ironworking technology.

During this period, Britain’s population was probably over a million.

This was made possible by new forms of agriculture, such as the introduction of new varieties of barley and wheat.

The invention of the iron-tipped plow made it possible for the first time to grow crops on heavy clay soils.

Some of the major advances during the period included the introduction of the potter’s wheel, the lathe (used for woodworking), and rotary quern for grinding grain.

There are nearly 3,000 Iron Age hill forts in the UK. Some were used as permanent settlements, others were used as venues for gatherings, trade, and religious activities.

At that time, most people lived in small farms with extended families.

The standard house was a roundhouse, made of wood or stone with a thatched or turf roof.

Funeral practices were varied, but it seems most people were removed by ‘excarnation’ – meaning they were deliberately exposed.

Some bog bodies have also been preserved from this period, showing evidence of violent deaths in the form of ritualistic and sacrificial murders.

Towards the end of this period there was increasing Roman influence from the western Mediterranean and southern France.

It seems that before the Roman conquest of England in AD 43. already had connections with many tribes and could have exercised some political influence.

After AD 43, all of Wales and England became part of the Roman Empire under Hadrian’s Wall, while Iron Age life in Scotland and Ireland continued for longer.

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