Wed. Oct 27th, 2021

You want beer-believe it! Old faeces samples taken from a mine in Austria reveal that people drank beer and ate blue cheese up to 2,700 years ago

  • The faeces were preserved in the salt mines Hallstatt-Dachstein / Salzkammergut
  • It was analyzed by experts from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies
  • They found that the excrement contained traces of two specific fungal species
  • These are known to be used for brewing and making blue cheese


Ancient human feces discovered from a mine in central Austria have provided evidence that people drank beer and ate blue cheese about 2,700 years ago.

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

The researchers found that ‘palaeofaeces’ contained traces of two species of fungi known to be used for brewing and making blue cheese.

Old human feces (pictured) excavated from a mine in central Austria have provided evidence that people drank beer and ate blue cheese about 2,700 years ago

Old human feces (pictured) excavated from a mine in central Austria have provided evidence that people drank beer and ate blue cheese about 2,700 years ago

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

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

The researchers found that the 'palaeofaeces' samples (pictured) contained traces of two species of fungi known to be used for brewing and making blue cheese.

The researchers found that the ‘palaeofaeces’ samples (pictured) contained traces of two species of fungi known to be used for brewing and making blue cheese.

BLUE CHEESE

Blue (or bleu) cheese is made using cultures of the form Penicillium.

This gives it blue or green spots and veins of the fungi throughout the cheese and contributed to its distinct odor – so do the other bacteria that are encouraged to grow on the cheese.

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

Blue cheeses often ripen in a temperature-controlled environment, like 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 analysis suggests that both fungi were involved in food fermentation,’ explained Dr. Maixner.

This, he added, provides ‘the first molecular evidence of consumption of blue cheese and beer in Iron Age Europe.’

In addition to genetic analysis of feces, the team also conducted in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies that looked at microbes and proteins preserved in the old excrement.

From this, the team was able to learn about the diet 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’ dietary study found that bran and glumes of various grains were the most common plant fragments in the fecal deposits.

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

Consistent with their plant-heavy diet, the ancient miners had an intestinal microbiome composition similar to that seen in modern, non-Western humans, whose consumption is centered around unprocessed foods, fresh fruits, and vegetables.

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

Extension of the microbial study to include fungi revealed Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae DNA traces in one of the Iron Age samples.

‘The Hallstatt miners appear to have deliberately used food fermentation technologies with microorganisms still in use in the food industry,’ noted Dr. Maixner.

'Genome analysis suggests that both fungi were involved in food fermentation,' explained Dr.  Maixner.  This, he added, provides 'the first molecular evidence of consumption of blue cheese and beer in Iron Age Europe.'  In the picture: one of the old excrement samples

‘Genome analysis suggests that both fungi were involved in food fermentation,’ explained Dr. Maixner. This, he added, provides ‘the first molecular evidence of consumption of blue cheese and beer in Iron Age Europe.’ In the picture: one of the old excrement samples

'These findings shed a significant new light on the lives of prehistoric salt miners in Hallstatt and allow an understanding of old culinary practices in general on a whole new level,' said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna.  In the picture: inside the salt mine

‘These findings shed a significant new light on the lives of prehistoric salt miners in Hallstatt and allow an understanding of old culinary practices in general on a whole new level,’ said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna. In the picture: inside the salt mine

‘These findings shed a significant new light on the lives of prehistoric salt miners in Hallstatt and allow an understanding of old culinary practices in general on a whole new level,’ said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna.

‘It is becoming increasingly clear that prehistoric culinary methods were not only sophisticated, but also that complex processed foods as well as the fermentation technique have played a prominent role in our early food history.’

The full results of the study were published in the journal Current Biology.

In addition to genetic analysis of feces, the team also conducted in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies that looked at microbes and proteins preserved in the old excrement.  Pictured: the researchers' DNA laboratory

In addition to genetic analysis of feces, the team also conducted in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies that looked at microbes and proteins preserved in the old excrement. Pictured: the researchers’ DNA laboratory

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

The fossil samples were preserved in the Hallstatt-Dachstein / Salzkammergut salt mines and were analyzed by experts from 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 43AD when the Romans invaded.

As the name suggests, this period experienced major changes thanks to the introduction of ironworking technology.

During this period, the population of the United Kingdom probably exceeded one 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-pointed plow made it possible for the first time to grow crops in heavy clay soils.

Some of the great advances in the introduction of the potter’s wheel, the lathe (used for woodworking) and the rotating quern for grinding grain.

There are almost 3,000 Iron Age hill castles in Britain. Some were used as permanent settlements, others were used as places for gatherings, trade, and religious activities.

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

The standard house was a round house, made of timber or stone with a thatched roof or turf roof.

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

Some bog bodies from this period have also been preserved, which show signs of violent deaths in the form of ritual and sacrificial killings.

Towards the end of this period there was a growing Roman influence from the western Mediterranean and the south of France.

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

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

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