It’s no secret that beer and blue cheese go hand in hand, but a new study reveals how deep their roots run in Europe, where workers at a salt mine in Austria gorged themselves ago up to 2,700 years.
Scientists made the discovery by analyzing samples of human excreta 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 more than two millennia ago were sufficiently advanced to “use fermentation intentionally”.
“It’s very sophisticated in my opinion,” Maixner said. “It’s something I wasn’t expecting at the time.”
According to the researchers, this discovery is the first evidence to date of cheese maturation in Europe.
And while alcohol consumption is certainly well documented in older writings and archaeological evidence, the droppings of salt miners contained the first molecular evidence of beer consumption on the continent at this time.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric culinary practices sophisticated, but also that complex processed foods as well as the fermentation technique played a prominent role in our food history”, Kerstin Kowarik, from the Vienna Natural History Museum. , noted.
The town of Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been used for salt production for over 3,000 years.
The community “is a very special place, it’s located in the Alps, in the middle of nowhere,” Maixner said. “The whole community worked and lived off this mine.
The miners spent their entire days there, working, eating and using the mine toilets.
It is thanks to the constant temperature of around 8C (46F) and the high concentration of salt at the mine that the miners’ droppings were particularly well preserved.
The researchers analyzed four samples: one 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 the manufacture of foods.
“The Hallstatt miners appear to have intentionally applied food fermentation technologies with microorganisms that are still used in the food industry today,” said Maixner.
The researchers also studied the diet of the miners, which consisted mainly of grains, fruits, beans and meat as a source of protein.
“The diet was exactly what these miners needed, in my opinion,” Maixner said. “It’s clearly balanced and you have all the main components you need. “
The main difference with today’s menus is the degree of food processing, which was very low back then. Bronze and Iron Age miners used whole grains, suggesting the consumption of some kind of porridge. To 18th-century miners, the grains appeared to be ground, indicating that they were eating bread or cookies.
One of the other results of the study was the composition of the miners’ microbiota, or all the bacteria present in their bodies.
In all four samples studied, the microbiota was very similar to that of modern non-Western populations, who tend to have more traditional lifestyles.
This suggests a “recent change” in the microbiota of industrialized humans, “likely due to modern lifestyles, diet or medical advances,” according to the study.
However, the microbiota is often linked to different modern diseases, Maixner said. According to him, figuring out when exactly this change happened could help scientists understand what caused it.
The study was published Wednesday in the journal Current Biology.