Anthropology: Old faeces from an Austrian mine shows people had beer and blue cheese 2,700 years ago


You’ll beer-ly believe it! Ancient faeces samples recovered from a mine in Austria reveal people drank beer and ate blue cheese up to 2,700 years ago

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


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Ancient human faeces unearthed from a mine in central Austria has provided evidence that people drank beer and ate blue cheese some 2,700 years ago.

Preserved in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines, the fossil samples were analysed by experts led from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies.

The researchers found that the ‘palaeofaeces’ contained traces of two fungal species which are known to be used in brewing and the manufacture of blue cheese.

Ancient human faeces (pictured) unearthed from a mine in central Austria has provided evidence that people drank beer and ate blue cheese some 2,700 years ago

Ancient human faeces (pictured) unearthed from a mine in central Austria has provided evidence that people drank beer and ate blue cheese some 2,700 years ago

Preserved in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines (pictured), the fossil samples were analysed by experts led from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

Preserved in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines (pictured), the fossil samples were analysed by experts led from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

Preserved in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines (pictured), the fossil samples were analysed by experts led from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

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

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

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

BLUE CHEESE 

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

This gives it blue or green spots and veins of the fungi throughout the cheese and contributed to its distinct odour — as does the other bacteria that are encouraged to grow on the cheese.

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

Blue cheeses are often matured in a temperature-controlled setting, like a cave.  Popular varieties include Gorgonzola, Stilton and Roquefort.

The study was undertaken 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,’ Dr Maixner explained.

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

Alongside genetic analysis of the faecal matter, the team also performed in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies, looking at the microbes and proteins preserved in the ancient excrement.

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

The researchers’ dietary survey found that the bran and glumes of various cereals were the most common plant fragments in the faecal deposits.

This high-fibre, carbohydrate rich diet appears to have been supplemented with proteins from broad beans, as well as fruits, nuts and other animal food products. 

In keeping with their plant-heavy diet, the ancient miners had a gut microbiome composition similar to that seen in modern, non-Westernised people whose consumption is centred around unprocessed foods, fresh fruit 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. 

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

‘The Hallstatt miners seem to have intentionally applied food fermentation technologies with microorganisms which are still nowadays used in the food industry,’ Dr Maixner noted. 

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

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

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

'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,' said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna. Pictured: inside the salt mine

'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,' said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna. Pictured: inside the salt mine

‘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,’ said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna. Pictured: inside the salt mine

‘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,’ said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna.

‘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.’

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

Alongside genetic analysis of the faecal matter, the team also performed in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies, looking at the microbes and proteins preserved in the ancient excrement. Pictured: the researchers' DNA laboratory

Alongside genetic analysis of the faecal matter, the team also performed in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies, looking at the microbes and proteins preserved in the ancient excrement. Pictured: the researchers' DNA laboratory

Alongside genetic analysis of the faecal matter, the team also performed in-depth microscopic and proteomic studies, looking at the microbes and proteins preserved in the ancient excrement. Pictured: the researchers’ DNA laboratory

Preserved in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines, the fossil samples were analysed by experts led from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

Preserved in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines, the fossil samples were analysed by experts led from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

Preserved in the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines, the fossil samples were analysed by experts led from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT IRON AGE BRITAIN?

The Iron Age in Britain started as the Bronze Age finished. 

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

As suggested by the name, this period saw large scale changes thanks to the introduction of iron working technology.

During this period the population of Britain probably exceeded one million. 

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

The invention of the iron-tipped plough made cultivating crops in heavy clay soils possible for the first time.

Some of the major advances during 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 sites for gatherings, trade and religious activities.

At the time most people were living in small farmsteads with extended families.

The standard house was a roundhouse, made of timber or stone with a thatch or turf roof.

Burial practices were varied but it seems most people were disposed of by ‘excarnation’ – meaning they were left deliberately exposed.

There are also some bog bodies preserved from this period, which show evidence of violent deaths in the form of ritual and sacrificial killing.

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 43AD they had already established connections with lots of tribes and could have exerted a degree of political influence.

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



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Written by bourbiza

bourbiza is an entertainment reporter for iltuoiphone News and is based in Los Angeles.

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