The saying “you are what you eat" may have more truth than we ever realised. Scientists have discovered new insights into the diets of ancient miners from the Bronze Age to the Baroque period. In the study published in the journal Current Biology, the research team conducted an in-depth microscopic, metagenomic, and proteomic analysis on human paleofeces, which were preserved in the underground salt mines of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hallstatt in Austria. The results of the study revealed a highly fibrous, carbohydrate-rich diet, with the bran and glumes of different cereals being some of the most prevalent plant fragments found in the ancient paleofeces. The miners’ diet was supplemented with proteins from broad beans, and they occasionally consumed fruits, nuts, or animal food products. This traditional dietary pattern gave rise to a gut microbiome structure that is similar to that of modern non-Westernized populations, whose diets are mainly composed of unprocessed foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The study also examined fungi present in the paleofeces, which revealed a high abundance of Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae DNA in one of the Iron Age samples. Genome-wide analysis of the fungi indicates that both were involved in food fermentation, providing the first molecular evidence for blue cheese and beer consumption in Iron Age Europe.
Author Frank Maixner wrote, “Paleofeces material displays an archaeological information source that provides insights into the diet and gut microbiome composition of ancestors. Here, we had access to four paleofeces samples from the Hallstatt salt mines dating from the Bronze Age to the Baroque period. The constant low annual temperature and high salt concentrations inside the mine preserved both plant macro-remains and biomolecules (DNA and protein) in the paleofeces.”
The findings suggest that ancient European miners had a diverse and healthy diet, which contributed to the development of a healthy gut microbiome. In contrast, modern Westernized populations have seen a shift in their gut community composition due to recent dietary and lifestyle changes, which may have negative health consequences.
This research not only sheds light on the diets of ancient populations but also highlights the importance of a healthy and diverse diet for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. With the rise of processed foods and Westernized diets, it is crucial to consider the impact on our gut health and to make dietary choices that prioritize fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as unprocessed and fermented foods.
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