Ancient Poop Suggests Humans Have Enjoyed Beer, Blue Cheese Since the Iron Age
Several websites will tell you that blue cheese and beer make an excellent pair for your palate. But if you think that’s a pairing modern-day humans came up with, you could be wrong, according to a new study. Turns out, our pre-historic ancestors may have been enjoying a diet of beer and blue cheese as many as 2,700 years ago.
Published in Current Biology this week, the study was based on the analysis of ancient poop — “paleofeces” — from the prehistoric salt mines in the UNESCO World Heritage region of Hallstatt-Dachstein in western Austria.
The high salt concentrations in the mine, and the constant annual temperature of around 8° Celsius prevailing inside it, had preserved the feces of the miners.
The analysis provided the researchers with the first-ever evidence of beer and blue cheese being produced in the Iron Age — between 1200 BCE and about 500 BCE. The historic poop contained two fungal species commonly used in the production of beer and blue cheese, which led to the discovery.
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This was unexpected even for the researchers, who expressed their surprise at the fact that over two millennia ago, humans were advanced enough to use fermentation deliberately.
“The Iron Age salt miners in the Hallstatt salt mountain seem to have intentionally applied food fermentation technologies with microorganisms which are still nowadays used in the food industry, 2,700 years ago,” co-author of the study, Kerstin Kowarik, an archaeologist at Vienna’s Natural History Museum, told CNN. “These results shed substantial new light on the life of the prehistoric salt miners in Hallstatt and allow an understanding of ancient culinary practices in general on a whole new level,” Kowarik added.
Past research suggests that producing beer and cheese are in no way “recent” developments. Last month, archaeologists found that beer was consumed in China about 9,000 years ago — albeit not for recreation. In 2018, yet another study found evidence of cheese being produced in the Mediterranean over 7,000 years ago. However, this is the first time proof of their existence within the same community has come forth.
Moreover, while the researchers called their production by the salt miners “intentional,” in the past, experts have suggested that the production of the earliest cheese may have been accidental, and the Chinese beer’s fermentation process was “leveraged it through trial and error.”
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“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,” Kowarik said.
According to Kowarik’s co-author, the diet of the miners — consisting primarily of cereals, fruits, beans, and meats — was also a really balanced diet.
“The diet was exactly what these miners needed, in my opinion… It’s clearly balanced and you have all major components you need,” Frank Maixner, a microbiologist at the Eurac Research Institute in Bolzano, Italy, who was the lead author of the study, told The Guardian.