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The Iron Age diet

Forget paleo-clean eating, here at Past Worlds we recommend the Iron Age diet.

The prehistoric salt mines of the Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut region of Austria have long been a treasure trove of information on ancient salt mining and the workers who laboured there. For some years, investigators have been studying faeces left by the Iron Age miners, and the latest generation of microscopic research has explored the microbes, DNA, and proteins that emerge from the faeces samples. We now know that their diet was plant-heavy, highly fibrous, and carbohydrate-rich. Their proteins came from broad beans, also occasional fruit, nuts, and meat.

But the fun really started when the researchers, among them Frank Maixner of the Center for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy, turned to the fungi in Iron Age faeces. One sample produced an abundance of Penicillium roqueforti, a fungal starter for making blue cheese, including Roquefort. DNA from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, yeast used in beer and wine making, was also commonplace.

Clearly, blue cheese and beer/wine supplemented the miners’ diet and confirm that the Hallstatt miners, and presumably other groups, routinely turned to fermentation to add variety to their diet 2,700 years ago. We know that fishers in Scandinavia were fermenting small fish as early as 9,500 years ago, so this form of preservation was probably applied to meat, fish, and other foods and beverages and – as we now know, apparently also extended to cheese.

So, next time someone tells you to "eat like your ancestors", do remember to point them in the direction of the cheese, wine, and beer.

Image: Roquefort, by Thesupermat - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

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