A little bit of feces can tell you a lot. Researchers who have studied human poop for over 2,700 years have found that Iron Age Europeans enjoyed blue cheese and beer in a way that is not dissimilar to modern-day tastes.
A detailed study of stool samples recovered from the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut salt mines in Austria revealed two types of fungi: Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae (also known as brewer's yeast).
These two fungi can still be used to make blue cheese and beer today. This gives historians insight into not only what our distant ancestors ate, but also how sophisticated and sophisticated their food- and drink-making methods were.
"Genome-wide analysis suggests that both fungi were involved food fermentation and provide first molecular evidence for beer and blue cheese consumption during Iron Age Europe," said Frank Maixner, a microbiologist from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies (Italy).
Researchers used a variety of microscopical techniques to identify the fungi. Common plant fragments included bran and glumes from different cereals.
According to the team, the diet of these Europeans was high in fibrous foods and high in carbohydrates. As supplements to the main diet, broad beans, fruits, nuts and animal foods products were probably used.
Recent poop samples taken from the same location reveal that diets were heavily dominated by fresh fruits and vegetables, even up to the Baroque period. This shows how modern our Westernized eating habits are.
Maixner says that Hallstatt miners may have deliberately applied food fermentation technology with microorganisms that are still used in the food industry today.
Exploring salt mines. (D. Brander and H.Reschreiter - NHMW)
You might think that 2,700 years is too long for poop to sit around. However, these underground salt mines are the only place on Earth where preserved samples of poop can still be found.
Feces must be kept in an unusual environment. For example, a dry cave like this, or a frozen habitat or desert. Plus, the salt mines of Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut stay cool all year round, which helps.
Beer drinking and cheesemaking are two of the oldest human practices. They date back thousands of years. However, these Austrian findings provide experts with another valuable data point to chart eating habits and diet.
These results shed significant new light on Hallstatt's prehistoric salt miners and allow for a deeper understanding of ancient culinary practices on a whole new level," Kerstin Kowarik (Archaeologist, Museum of Natural History Vienna) says.
It is becoming more evident that prehistoric culinary practices were sophisticated. However, complex processed foodstuffs and the technique of fermentation played a significant role in early food history.
Current Biology published the research.