2400-Year-Old Natural Mummy Bog Man’s Intestine Analysis Reveals His Last Meal

2400-Year-Old Natural Mummy Bog Man's Intestine Analysis Reveals His Last Meal

2400-Year-Old Natural Mummy Bog Man’s Intestine Analysis Reveals His Last Meal

The famous Tollund Man ate a modest but nutritious meal before being hanged around 400 BC, a new study reveals.

Scientists have re-examined the last meal of the famous Tollund Man, a naturally mummified corpse found in a bog on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark in 1950.

The new analysis reveals that he likely ate an Iron Age meal of fish and porridge packed with seeds, consumed sometime between 12 and 24 hours before his death.

Although it sounds fairly ordinary, threshing waste containing the wild seeds was used as an ingredient in the porridge, which is suggestive of ritual practices.

They also found Tollund Man had several parasitic infections – likely because he consumed undercooked meat and contaminated water at some point prior to death.

Photomicrograph of Tollund Man¿s gut content. Tollund Man was murdered by hanging for unknown reasons
Photomicrograph of Tollund Man’s gut content. Tollund Man was murdered by hanging for unknown reasons

Tollund Man is a bog body – meaning it’s been incredibly well-preserved over more than 2,000 years in the unique conditions of a natural peat bog.

Previous research has determined his cause of death as murder by hanging for unknown reasons before his body was placed in the bog.

Tollund Man may have been a criminal or was possibly even sacrificed as part of a ritual practice ‘to keep the gods satisfied’.

Tollund Man’s gut contents had been analysed forensically when he was discovered in 1950, uncovering traces of cereals and wild plants.

Reconstruction of the ingredients in Tollund Man¿s last meal, shown in quantities relative to the intestinal contents: A) barley; B) pale persicaria; C) barley rachis segments; D) flax; E) black-bindweed; F) fat hen; G) sand; H) hemp-nettles; I) gold-of-pleasure; J) corn spurrey; K) field pansy
A) barley; B) pale persicaria; C) barley rachis segments; D) flax; E) black-bindweed; F) fat hen; G) sand; H) hemp-nettles; I) gold-of-pleasure; J) corn spurrey; K) field pansy

When Tollund Man was autopsied in 1950, his intestines were still preserved, and the alimentary canal from the stomach to anus was removed in one piece with its contents still in place.

Now, experts from Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, say they have been able to reconstruct the last meal of Tollund Man in greater detail than ever before – right down to how it was prepared.

The researchers used a few millilitres of material from the large intestine for analyses to give the ‘most detailed study’ yet on the gut contents of a bog body.

‘Since knowledge of plant macrofossils and the methods for analysing gut contents have improved greatly since 1950, we decided to re-investigate the gut contents of Tollund Man,’ said study author Dr Nina H. Nielsen from Museum Silkeborg.

‘In this way, we get very close to a specific situation in the past – you can almost imagine how they were sitting by the fireplace preparing the barley porridge and the fish.

‘We can now pretty much reconstruct the recipe of the last meal of Tollund Man.’

Porridge was likely a typical dish in Iron Age northern Europe, and fish was also eaten in this period, although it did not make up a substantial part of the diet.

His last meal was cooked in a clay pot, likely using water from a lake or bog, according to the experts.

His ‘quite nutritious’ porridge consisted of barley, flax seeds, pale persicaria seeds and other seeds in ‘negligible amounts’, including gold-of-pleasure seeds.

Seeds of Pale persicaria – which grew as a weed – were likely removed as grain was cleaned during threshing and collected along with the grain.

The use of threshing waste containing pale persicaria in the porridge could be connected to the human sacrifice ritual, or it might have been part of ordinary Iron Age cooking.

‘As for now, we don’t know whether the use of threshing waste in the Iron Age cuisine was normal practice or whether this ingredient was only used at special occasions like human sacrifices,’ said Dr Nielsen.

Threshing waste has also before been found in the Grauballe Man, found in a peat bog near the village of Grauballe in Jutland, Denmark.

Together, the plant ingredients alone provided nearly half of the daily caloric intake for a person with limited physical activity.

Photomicrographs of Tollund Man¿s gut contents: a) cluster of barley pollen; b) epidermis cells from flax; c) epidermis cells from barley; d) egg from whipworm; e) egg from mawworm; f) egg from tapeworm
Photomicrographs of Tollund Man’s gut contents: a) cluster of barley pollen; b) epidermis cells from flax; c) epidermis cells from barley; d) egg from whipworm; e) egg from mawworm; f) egg from tapeworm

Traces of a further 20 plant species were also found in the guts, but they made up less than 1 per cent and were probably not an intentional part of the meal.

As well as the seeds, threshing waste including sand, charcoal and other detritus seems to have been used as an ingredient in the porridge.

Eggs from whipworm, mawworm and tapeworm were common in the gut contents of Tollund Man and show that he was infected by intestinal parasites.

Whipworm and mawworm have previously been found in several bog bodies, but it is the first time that tapeworm is reported.

The most likely cause of the tapeworm infection was that Tollund Man at some point had consumed raw or undercooked meat infected with tapeworm cysts.

The infestations of whipworm and mawworm reflect poor hygiene, as these are transmitted by eggs present in human faeces, which contaminate the soil in areas where sanitation is poor.

The researchers claim their study ‘shows that it can be beneficial to re-analyse bog body gut contents’ to reveal secrets of the past.

Because of their exceptionally good preservation, bog bodies can provide detailed insights into how the people looked, dressed and died, as well as their last meal, their health and where they lived.

The new research has been published in the journal Antiquity.

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