Research on poop samples, or palaeofaeces, preserved in the underground salt mines of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hallstatt in Austria has revea
Research on poop samples, or palaeofaeces, preserved in the underground salt mines of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hallstatt in Austria has revealed startling new facts about the Iron Age diet in central Europe. The results showed that Europeans consumed lots of blue cheese and beer 2700 years ago! The research was undertaken by a team from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy, led by microbiologist Frank Maxiner. Their study results were recently published in the journal Current Biology .
Usually, human fecal matter tends to break down fairly quickly, except in dry or frozen environments. These particular fecal samples, which spanned the period from the Bronze Age (lasting between 3200 BC and circa 600 BC in Europe) to the Baroque Age (18th century AD), were well preserved due to the high salt concentrations and constant temperature inside the Hallstatt mines. It was a sample from the Iron Age (c. 800 BC-AD 100 in Europe) that revealed the robust presence of the DNA of two fungal species, one used in the production of blue cheeses such as Gorgonzola, Stilton and Roquefort, and the other in the brewing of beer.
The Daily Mail Online quotes Dr Maxiner as saying, “Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in food fermentation, providing the first molecular evidence for blue cheese and beer consumption during Iron Age Europe.”
The prehistoric miners left everything they no longer needed in the mine. Thanks to the salt, thousands and thousands of organic objects have been perfectly preserved over the millennia. ( D. Brander / H.Reschreiter / Museum of Natural History Vienna )
Poop Evidence Tells Us Much More About the Iron Age Diet
Researchers used analyses of the microbes, DNA, and proteins present in the poop to learn more about the diet of the area’s ancient miners. They identified bran and remains of different cereals such as domesticated wheat, barley, common millets and foxtail millets as the most prevalent plant matter in the samples. However, proteins from broad beans supplemented this fibrous, carbohydrate-heavy diet, as did fruits, nuts, and animal products.
The cereal remains in the Bronze and Iron Age samples were less processed in comparison to the Baroque samples, which consisted of finely ground wheat. This suggests that while the protohistoric miners ate their cereals as porridge or gruel, those from the 18th century consumed it in more refined forms like bread and biscuits.
This plant-heavy diet meant that the gut microbiome of the people living in the area were similar to that of modern non-Western people who mostly eat unprocessed food, fruits and vegetables. According to CNN, the research team pointed out that this finding means that the modern Western gut microbiome is a result of new food habits and lifestyles in recent times.
A sample of 2600-year-old human excrement from the Iron Age salt mines of Hallstatt. The remains of beans, millet and barley grains can be seen with the naked eye. (Anwora / Museum of Natural History Vienna )
Fungal Analysis Yielded the Most Interesting Results
It was when the microbial survey was extended to include fungi that the team discovered its most surprising findings. One of the Iron Age samples showed traces of Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae DNA, fungi found in cheese, and beer, wine, mead and bread, respectively. According to the Heritage Daily , Dr Maxiner noted, “The Hallstatt miners seem to have intentionally applied food fermentation technologies with microorganisms which are still nowadays used in the food industry.”
Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History Vienna told CNN that this showed that fermented foods had an important role to play in human diets throughout history. Ancient humans practiced advanced culinary techniques like food fermentation that were adopted not only to preserve food but probably also to add to the taste spectrum.
“We were able to show that fermented foods have an important role in human history over a long time. Culinary practices were sophisticated, relying on complex food processing techniques such as fermentation and most probably aiming not only at food preservation, but also at achieving a specific taste. Through our study we have also added to the long history of cheese and dairy products, by demonstrating that blue cheese was already produced in Iron Age Europe nearly 2,700 years ago,” Kowarik stated.
The study has revealed a lot about the Iron Age diet of central Europeans. In general, the salt miners of Hallstatt consumed the same foods from the Bronze Age to the 18th century. But over time their diet gradually included more refined foods. In the modern period this shift became much more rapid.
Top image: According to the latest study, the Iron Age diet of Europeans was rich in grains, fermented blue cheese, and beer. Source: wideonet / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey