Beer and blue cheese are part of a good snack in many places in Europe. A delicious gastronomic combination that may seem very modern but, according to a new study published in
‘Current Biology’, has been in practice since prehistoric times. A team of researchers has discovered in the Hallstatt-Dachstein / Salzkammergut salt mines, in Austria, the presence in ancient human feces of two species of fungi that were used in the fermentation of these two foods almost 3,000 years ago.
«Genome analysis provides the first molecular evidence of the consumption of blue cheese and beer during the Iron Age in Europe, ”says Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for the study of mummies in Bolzano, Italy.
In the new work, the researchers performed in-depth microscopic, metagenomic and proteomic analyzes to explore the microbes, DNA, and proteins present in the samples. These exhaustive studies allowed them to reconstruct the diet of the people who once lived in the mines, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They were also able to obtain information about the ancient microbes that inhabited their guts. Gut microbes are known as the gut microbiome, and according to the latest studies, they play an important role in human health.
The researchers identified in the feces bran and glumes (pods) of different cereals. This highly fibrous, carbohydrate-rich diet was supplemented with protein from broad beans and occasionally with fruits, nuts or food products of animal origin.
These ancient miners had gut microbiome structures more similar to those of modern non-Westernized individuals, whose diets are also primarily made up of unprocessed foods, fresh fruits, and vegetables. The findings suggest a more recent shift in the Western gut microbiome as eating habits and lifestyles have been transformed.
When the researchers expanded their microbial study to include fungi, they got their biggest surprise: an abundance in one of their Iron Age samples of DNA from Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
“The Hallstatt miners appear to have intentionally applied micro-organism food fermentation technologies that are still used today in the food industry,” says Maixner.
In his view, the findings offer the first evidence that people were already producing blue cheese in Iron Age Europe nearly 2,700 years ago. In ongoing and future studies of Hallstatt paleo feces, they hope to learn more about the early production of fermented foods and the interaction between nutrition and gut microbiome composition over different time periods.
“These results shed new light on the lives of prehistoric salt miners in Hallstatt and allow an understanding of ancient culinary practices in general on a whole new level,” adds Kerstin Kowarik of the Vienna Natural History Museum. “It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric culinary practices sophisticated, but also that complex processed foodsAs well as the fermentation technique, they have played a prominent role in our early food history, ”he says.
Of course, the oldest beer in Europe is ours. It was made in the Ambrona valley (Soria) 4,400 years ago. Remains of a fermented wheat drink were found in beautifully decorated vessels probably used at banquets and funeral rites.