BOLZANO, Italy: According to a scientific study published in the journal Current Biology, workers at a salt mine in Austria were eating blue cheese and drinking beer some 2,700 years ago.
The discovery was made after scientists analyzed debris found in the Hallstatt mine in the Austrian Alps.
Microbiologist Frank Maixner from the Eurac Research Institute in Bolzano, Italy, who was the report's lead author, said he was surprised to learn salt miners were advanced enough to "use fermentation intentionally" over 2,000 years ago.
Researchers also noted that the finding is the earliest evidence of cheese and beer consumption in Europe.
"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," noted Kerstin Kowarik from the Museum of Natural History Vienna, as quoted by the Agence France-Presse.
Maixner noted that the town of Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been a center of salt production for more than 3,000 years and "is a very particular place, it is located in the Alps, in the middle of nowhere," adding, "The whole community worked and lived from this mine," as reported by Agence France-Presse.
The mine's constant temperature of around 8C (46F) and high concentration of salt helped preserve the miners' debris.
Researchers analyzed four samples, with one dating back to the Bronze Age, two from the Iron Age, and one from the 18th century.
A 2,700-year old sample contained two fungi, Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which as both used today in food production.