Beer and blue cheese: What was on the menu 2,700 years ago

We perceive highly processed fermented foods such as beer or cheese above all as a hallmark of modernity. We know from historical writings that, for example, milk was fermented in ancient Egypt.

However, the world’s oldest evidence of the actual consumption of blue cheese was now provided by a team of researchers from the Natural History Museum in Vienna, which examined the exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric and historical excrement from the Hallstatt salt mine from the Bronze to the Baroque period.

There are also indications of a possible beer culture. The combination of archaeological and molecular biological methods, which made surprising insights into prehistoric eating habits and food production possible, proved to be particularly fruitful. The study results were published today on October 13th in the trade magazine Current Biology released.

Knowledge through excrement

The prehistoric salt mine of Hallstatt is the oldest salt mine still in operation in the world, and thanks to the high salt concentration in the tunnels and the constant temperature of 8 ° C, millennia-old remains – including organic objects such as textiles, tools, leftovers – have been preserved exceptionally well .

Also human excrement – “which makes the archaeological site a unique treasure trove for research,” says Kerstin Kowarik, associate scientist at the Natural History Museum Vienna. “The specimens that we examined are almost perfectly preserved – they still contain human DNA, as well as DNA from intestinal bacteria, as well as proteins and parts of the food we eat,” explains the microbiologist Frank Maixner from the Bolzano research center Eurac Research.

In a sample from the Iron Age, the research team discovered, to their surprise, large quantities of two types of mushroom, Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which are used for the refinement and fermentation of food – in this case blue cheese and beer.

Processed foods as early as the Iron Age

“It is particularly exciting that, based on our analyzes, we have clear indications that these specific yeast variants were not only used by chance, but were specifically bred and used for beer production,” explains Maixner. The consumption of a dish that mainly consisted of cattle blood, possibly Iron Age blood sausage, could also be proven.

The research group, led by Eurac Research and the Natural History Museum Vienna, is the first to provide evidence at the molecular level that complex processed foods played a greater role than previously assumed as early as the Iron Age.

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