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Prehistoric poop shows ancient humans too enjoyed beer, blue cheese

Human waste found in modern-day Austria has given researchers what they believe to be the earliest known direct evidence of intentional cheese-ripening and beer fermentation in European history.

(CN) — New biological information gathered from prehistoric human poop shows even humans from nearly 3,000 years ago shared a love for blue cheese and pale ales. 

As archaeologists and historians continually work to comb through Earth’s long history and unravel the mysteries found within, a subject of frequent fascination among academic circles is the diets of our earliest human ancestors. Humans from millennia ago had the same nutritional needs and culinary curiosities as we do today; understanding how they satisfied their hunger with far more limited resources has been on experts’ radar for years. 

Now, new research into preserved poop — known as paleofeces — from early Europeans shows those diets contained some surprising additions that humans are still enjoying to this day. 

In a study published Wednesday in Current Biology, researchers announce they’ve found traces of fungal species used predominantly in the production of blue cheese and beer in human waste that’s been perfectly preserved for 2,700 years in the salt mines of a UNESCO World Heritage Site dubbed the “Hallstatt-Dachstein / Salzkammergut Cultural Landscape,” which resides in what is now Austria. 

Experts were able to make the discoveries by using advanced microscopic observation techniques to look into the microbes, proteins and even DNA samples of the nearly-3,000 year old waste, information that helped researchers stitch together a clearer picture on what ancient Europeans were eating during the Iron Age. 

Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History Vienna says these findings help to illustrate just how ahead of the curve so many prehistoric cultures were when it came to their culinary identities. 

“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 said. “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.”

While cheese itself has been present in numerous cultures around the world in a myriad of different eras, people from the Austria area appeared to have used fermentation and special fungi strains to create the more fungus-based blue cheese, both of which help to give the cheese its signature pungent aroma. According to experts, they believe these findings represent the earliest known molecular evidence of blue cheese in history. 

As for what kind of beer folks were making at the time, the constant temperatures of the mines initially suggested that the beers were made similar to that of today’s lager-styled beverages, but a closer look into the history of beer production ultimately pointed experts in a different direction. 

“We postulate that the beer produced at that time is similar to what would nowadays be known as pale beer, produced mainly by top-fermenting S. cerevisiae strains,” the study states.

Not unlike their breakthrough with blue cheese, experts think these fermented beverages also serve as the first of their kind in Iron Age Europe. 

Beer and blue cheese were not the only dietary staples of these early Europeans. Researchers also found evidence of different kinds of cereals and brans, suggesting people from the time period largely enjoyed fiber and carb-heavy diets, though they appeared to be supplemented by some proteins and fresh fruits. 

But researchers say there is likely much more to the story here that they aim to uncover. Experts say they are looking towards more extensive analysis of the fossilized feces from the salt mines that could help them learn even more about early experiments into food fermentation. 

With that knowledge, experts believe they can unlock even more elusive secrets and insights into the culinary journeys of humanity’s earliest eaters.

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