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Ancient faeces shows people had beer and blue cheese 2,700 years ago

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 13/10/2021 Ian Randall For Mailonline
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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.


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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. 

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'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

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