It’s no secret that beer and blue cheese go hand in hand—but a new study reveals just how deep their roots lie in Europe, where workers in a salt mine Austria Were looking at both until 2,700 years ago.
The scientists made the discovery by analyzing samples of human excrement found at the center of the Hallstatt mine in the Austrian Alps.
Frank Maxner, a microbiologist at the Urac Research Institute in Bolzano, Italy, who was the report’s lead author, said he was surprised to learn that more than two millennia ago salt miners were “advanced enough to use deliberate fermentation.”
“It’s very sophisticated in my opinion,” Maxner said. “It’s something I didn’t expect at the time.”
This discovery was the earliest evidence to date the ripening of cheese. Europe, according to the researchers.
And while alcohol consumption is certainly well documented in older writings and archaeological evidence, the feces of salt miners contained the first molecular evidence of beer consumption on the continent at the time.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric culinary practices sophisticated, but that complex processed foods, as well as the techniques of fermentation, played a major role in our early food history,” says Kerstin Kovrik of the Natural History Museum Vienna, said.
The city of Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been used for salt production for more than 3,000 years.
The community is “a very special place, it is located in the middle of nowhere in the Alps,” Maxner said. “The whole community worked and lived from this mine.”
The miners spent their entire day there, working, eating and going to the bathroom of the mine.
It is thanks to the constant temperature of around 8C (46F) and the high concentration of salt in the mine that the miners’ feces were preserved particularly well.
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, was found to have two fungi, Penicillium rocforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Both are known today for their use in cooking.
“Hallstatt miners intentionally applied food fermentation techniques with microorganisms that are used in the food industry today,” said Maxner.
The researchers also studied the miners’ diet, which consisted mainly of grains, some fruits, and beans and meats as sources of protein.
“The diet was exactly what these miners needed in my opinion,” Maxner said. “It’s clearly balanced and has all the major components you need.”
The main difference with today’s menu is the degree of food processing, which was very low at the time. Bronze and Iron Age miners used whole grains, suggesting the consumption of some sort of porridge. To 18th-century miners, grain appeared on the ground, indicating that they ate bread or cookies.
One of the study’s other findings was the composition of the miners’ microbiota, or the group of bacteria present in their bodies.
In the four samples studied, the microbiota was similar to that of modern non-Western populations, which tend to have more traditional lifestyles.
The study says it suggests a “recent change” in the microbiota of industrialized humans, “probably due to modern lifestyles, diet or medical advances”.
However, the microbiota are often associated with various modern diseases, Maxner said. According to him, determining when exactly this change occurred could help scientists understand what caused it.
The study was published in the journal current biology on Wednesday.