Food & Drink | October 20, 2021 1:13 pm

The Poop Remains of Ancient Humans Show They Loved Beer and Cheese

We've got plenty in common with our ancestors

A beer and cheese spread
A beer and cheese spread.
Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty

To learn what the former population of a UNESCO World Heritage site in Austria were eating and drinking to survive, researchers from the Institute for Mummy Studies, the University of Trento, and the Vienna Museum of Natural History analyzed four paleofecal samples from the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Baroque Age. 

A paper published in Current Biology states that molecular evidence reviewed in that analysis shows that blue cheese and beer were consumed during the Iron Age in Europe the same way they are in sports bars throughout America along with chicken wings and nachos on Sunday afternoons during football season.

The fecal samples the team reviewed were preserved in salt mines near the town Hallstatt. Since miners worked all day, they ate and relieved themselves underground. Thanks to the pressure and the salt in the mines, their feces samples and the biomolecules within remained intact.

“Paleofeces are naturally preserved ancient feces found in dry caves, desert areas, waterlogged environments and frozen habitats,” per the paper. “Specific environmental processes such as desiccation or freezing prevent their deterioration in mummies, ancient latrines, bogs, and soils. Previous studies have shown that paleofecal material still contains plant macro- and microfossils, parasite eggs, and even ancient biomolecules (DNA, proteins, metabolites). Ancient paleofeces have therefore recently been used as a source of information to study prehistoric nutrition patterns and health and to analyze single representatives or the overall composition of the intestinal microbiome of our ancestors.”

The well-preserved poop contained penicillium roqueforti and saccharomyces cerevisiae proteins; the former is used for cheese fermentation and the latter is used for fermenting bread and alcoholic beverages including beer, mead and wine.

“Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in food fermentation and provides the first molecular evidence for blue cheese and beer consumption in Iron Age Europe,” according to the paper.