Human beings’ love of cheese and beer dates back a long time. But according to a scientific study published Wednesday, workers at a salt mine in Austria have already enjoyed blue cheese and beer for 2,700 years.
The scientists made the discovery by analyzing samples of human excrement found in the heart of the Hallstatt mine in the Austrian Alps. The study was published in the journal Current Biology on Wednesday.
Frank Maixner, a microbiologist at the Eurac Research Institute in Bolzano, Italy, who was the lead author of the report, said he was surprised to learn that salt miners of more than two millennia ago were advanced enough to “use fermentation intentionally.” .
“This is very sophisticated in my opinion,” Maixner told AFP. “This is something I was not expecting at the time.”
The finding was the earliest evidence to date of cheese maturation in Europe, according to the researchers.
And while alcohol consumption is certainly well documented in older writings and archaeological evidence, the feces of the 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 also that complex processed foods, as well as the technique of fermentation, have played a prominent role in our early food history,” said Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum. of Natural History of Vienna. .
The UNESCO-listed city of Hallstatt has been used for salt production for more than 3,000 years, according to Maixner.
The community “is a very particular place, it is located in the Alps, in the middle of nowhere,” he explained. “The whole community worked and lived from this mine.”
The miners spent every day there, working, eating and going to the bathroom right there in the mine.
Thanks to the constant temperature of around 8 ° C (46 ° F) and the high concentration of salt in the mine, the miners’ faeces were particularly well preserved.
The researchers analyzed four samples: one dating from the Bronze Age, two from the Iron Age, and one from the 18th century.
One of them, about 2,700 years old, contained two fungi, Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Both are known today for their use in food processing.