Ancient droppings show residents of today’s Austria drank beer and ate blue cheese up to 2,700 years ago – ScienceDaily


Human faeces usually don’t stay long – and certainly not for thousands of years. But exceptions to this general rule can be found in a few places around the world, including the prehistoric salt mines in Austria’s UNESCO World Heritage Area Hallstatt-Dachstein / Salzkammergut. Now, researchers who have studied ancient fecal samples (or paleofeces) from these mines have discovered surprising evidence: the presence of two fungal species used in the production of blue cheese and beer. Results appear in the journal Current biology October 13.

“Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in the fermentation of food and provide the first molecular evidence for the consumption of blue cheese and beer during the Iron Age in Europe,” says Frank Maixner (@FrankMaixner) of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy.

“These findings shed substantial new light on the life of prehistoric salt miners in Hallstatt and allow an understanding of ancient culinary practices in general to a whole new level,” adds Kerstin Kowarik (@KowarikKerstin) of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. . “It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric cooking practices sophisticated, but also that complex processed foods as well as the technique of fermentation played a prominent role in our ancient food history.”

Previous studies had already shown the potential of studies of prehistoric paleo-feces from salt mines to offer important information about the diet and health of early humans. In the new study, Maixner, Kowarik and their colleagues added in-depth microscopic, metagenomic and proteomic analyzes – to explore the microbes, DNA and proteins present in these poo samples.

These in-depth studies allowed them to replenish the diets of the people who once lived there. They could also get information about the ancient microbes that inhabited their bowels. Gut microbes are collectively known as the gut microbiome and are now recognized to play important roles in human health.

Their dietary investigation identified the bran and glumes of different grains as one of the most prevalent plant fragments. They report that this very fibrous, carbohydrate-rich diet was supplemented with protein from beans and sometimes fruits, nuts, or animal foods.

Consistent with their plant-rich diet, ancient miners until the Baroque period also had gut microbiome structures more akin to those of modern, non-Westernized individuals, whose diet is also primarily comprised of unprocessed foods, fresh fruits and vegetables. The results suggest a more recent shift in the Western gut microbiome as eating habits and lifestyles have changed.

When the researchers extended their microbial investigation to fungi, that’s when they got their biggest surprise: an abundance in one of their Iron Age samples of Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae DNA.

“The Hallstatt miners appear to have intentionally applied food fermentation technologies with microorganisms that are still used in the food industry today,” says Maixner.

The results offer the first evidence that people were already producing blue cheese during the Iron Age in Europe almost 2,700 years ago, he adds. In ongoing and future studies of Hallstatt’s paleofeces, they hope to learn more about the early production of fermented foods and the interplay between nutrition and gut microbiome composition at different time periods.

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Material provided by Cell press. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.

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