Ancient fossils reveal Iron Age miners had a taste for beer and cheese

Though nearly 3,000 years have passed, a new study on ancient fossils reveals that Iron Age miners had a relatable dietary habit: the consumption of beer and cheese. The discovery was made by analyzing well-preserved fossilized feces found in Iron Age salt mines; the presence of certain fungi commonly used to make beer and bleu cheese were found in abundance.

Fermented foods were a common part of the human diet before modern refrigeration, including a rudimentary form of what we now call beer. The Austrian UNESCO World Heritage sites Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut (prehistoric salt mines) offer a unique look at the diet that was common in the area during the Iron Age due to the abundance of paleofeces.

A new study on the samples recently published in Cell Biology reports the surprising discovery of evidence indicating these ancient salt miners consumed a diet heavy in beer and bleu cheese. The indications come in the form of two fungal species that were commonly used to produce these cheese and beverages.

According to the researchers, their study provides the first evidence that people ate bleu cheese and beer during Europe's Iron Age. The scientists looked at the DNA, proteins, and microbes found in the feces samples, shedding light on the diets that were common in the region at the time

Of note, the Iron Age European diet was rich in carbohydrates and fiber with beans serving as the greatest source of protein. To a lesser degree, the samples also revealed the consumption of animal products, fruit, and nuts. The consumption of a primarily plant-based, unprocessed diet meant these individuals' gut bacteria was likely similar to that found in modern non-Western populations.

The surprising discovery was that fermentation was a common part of the diet at this time, indicating a relatively sophisticated diet not unlike what someone may eat today. Additional research may shed light on how these ancient fermented foods were produced.

Image via Reschreiter_Groebner / NHM