It’s no secret that beer and blue cheese go hand in hand, but a new study reveals just how deep their roots run in Europe, where workers at a salt mine in Austria had their fill of both up to 2,700 years ago.
The scientists made the discovery by analyzing samples of human excrement found in the heart of the Hallstatt mine in the Austrian Alps.
Frank Maixner, a microbiologist at the Eurac Research Institute in Bolzano, Italy, who was the lead author of the report, said he was surprised to learn that salt miners of more than two millennia ago were advanced enough to “use fermentation intentionally.” .
“This is very sophisticated in my opinion,” Maixner said. “This is something I was not expecting at the time.”
The finding was the earliest evidence to date of cheese maturation in Europe, according to the researchers.
And while alcohol consumption is certainly well documented in older writings and archaeological evidence, the feces of the salt miners contained the first molecular evidence of beer consumption on the continent at the time.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric culinary practices sophisticated, but also that complex processed food products, as well as the technique of fermentation, have played a prominent role in our early food history,” Kerstin Kowarik of the Vienna Natural History Museum. , said.
The Unesco World Heritage-listed town of Hallstatt has been used for salt production for over 3,000 years.
The community “is a very particular place, it is located in the Alps, in the middle of nowhere,” Maixner said. “The whole community worked and lived from this mine.”
The miners spent there every day, working, eating, and going to the mine’s toilet.
Thanks to the constant temperature of around 8 ° C (46 ° F) and the high concentration of salt in the mine, the miners’ faeces were particularly well preserved.
The researchers analyzed four samples: one dating from the Bronze Age, two from the Iron Age, and one from the 18th century.
One of them, about 2,700 years old, contained two fungi, Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Both are known today for their use in food processing.
“The Hallstatt miners appear to have intentionally applied micro-organism food fermentation technologies that are still used today in the food industry,” Maixner said.
The researchers also studied the miners’ diet, which consisted mainly of cereals, some fruits and beans, and meats as a source of protein.
“The diet was exactly what these miners needed, in my opinion,” Maixner said. “It’s clearly balanced and has all the major components you need.”
The main difference from today’s menus is the degree of food processing, which was very low at the time. Bronze and Iron Age miners used whole grains, suggesting the consumption of some type of porridge. To the miners of the 18th century, the grains appeared ground, indicating that they ate bread or cookies.
One of the other findings of the study was the composition of the miners’ microbiota, or the set of bacteria present in their bodies.
In the four samples studied, the microbiota was very similar to that of modern non-Western populations, which tend to have a more traditional lifestyle.
This suggests a “recent change” in the microbiota of industrialized humans, “probably due to modern lifestyle, diet or medical advances,” the study said.
However, the microbiota is often linked to different modern diseases, Maixner said. According to him, determining when exactly this change occurred could help scientists understand what caused it.
The study was published in the journal Current biology On Wednesday.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism