Toasting a big week for ancient gastronomy

Blue cheese, beer and wine – it’s the hipster’s smorgasbord, but it turns out humans have been chowing down on these delicacies for a very long time.

New research, published today in Current Biology, shows that preserved human poo – otherwise known as coprolites – in an Iron Age salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria contained traces of two types of fungi known to be used in food fermentation to make blue cheese and beer. The find comes hot on the heels of the announcement of the discovery of a 1500-year-old Byzantine winery in Israel this week.

Fossilised faeces
2600-year-old human excrement from the Hallstatt salt mines in which beans, millet and barley are clearly visible. CREDIT Anwora – NHMW

The fossilised poop was uncovered deep in the shafts of an ancient salt mine, where matter is preserved extraordinarily well. The ancient workers who mined these depths some 2700 years ago left precious traces of their gut microbiome in the smelly offerings, which the scientists probed for evidence of different molecules and microbes.

In the faecal matter, the scientists found an abundance of DNA from the fungi Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

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

Read more: Bronze Age Babylonians loved beer

The researchers say their findings demonstrate the deep antiquity of some of our most revered culinary practices.

“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,” says Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Austria.

Alongside more indulgent treats, the researchers identified the trace remnants of a highly fibrous diet of bran and cereals, as well as broad beans, fruits, nuts and very occasionally meat.

Fossilised faeces
2600-year-old human excrement from the Hallstatt salt mines in which beans, millet and barley are clearly visible. CREDIT Anwora – NHMW

Because these ancient miners had a diet almost exclusively made up of plant material, microbial analysis revealed they had a gut microbiome structure more akin to modern non-Western people whose diets are mostly unprocessed foods, fruit and vegetables.

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

Man standing in a dark tunnel
An archaeologist standing in the middle of layers of accumulated mining debris including paleofaeces. CREDIT D. Brander and H.Reschreiter – NHMW

The findings offer the first evidence that people were already producing blue cheese in Iron Age Europe, he adds. In ongoing and future studies of the paleofaeces from Hallstatt, the team hopes to learn more about the early production of fermented foods and the interplay between nutrition and the gut microbiome composition in different time periods.

Meanwhile, around 800 years after the Hallstatt miners were munching blue cheese and sipping beer, the inhabitants of a vast complex 30 kilometres south of modern-day Tel Aviv were industriously producing wine. The site, uncovered by a team of archaeologists and revealed publicly this week, had a platform upon which piles of grapes would have been split open, a floor for grape-stomping and a set of collection basins. The team also found dozens of intact wine jugs that could hold up to 25 litres, indicating wine production at an almost industrial scale for trading.

But the Hallstatt miners and the winemakers of Byzantine Israel were not pioneers. The oldest evidence for winemaking at present comes from an 8000-year-old site in modern-day Georgia, while the oldest potential evidence for the brewing of beer comes from a Natufian cave site in Israel, whose occupants appear to have made the drink some 13,000 years ago.

Please login to favourite this article.