The incredibly well-preserved head of Tollund Man.Image: A. Mikkelsen
A re-analysis of the stomach contents belonging to a naturally mummified Iron Age man is providing new insights into his surprisingly nutritious final meal and compromised state of health.
Tollund Man died around 400 BCE in what is now the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. He died by hanging, in what is believed to be a ritual sacrifice. His body was preserved in a Danish bog for 2,400 years, allowing for an analysis of his stomach contents.
The new findings, published in Antiquity, suggest Tollund Man ate his final meal some 12 to 24 hours before his death and that it consisted of porridge and fish—both common dishes during the Danish Early Iron Age. It was a nutritious, likely tasty meal, but Tollund Man was not in the best of health, as he was infected with several parasites. The new research was led by archaeologist Nina Nielsen from the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark.
The well-preserved remains of Tollund Man were accidentally discovered in 1950. A forensic analysis was carried out the same year, in which his digestive system—along with its contents—were studied and documented by scientists. The autopsy revealed the ingredients of Tollund Man’s final meal—barley, flax, gold-of-pleasure seeds, seeds of pale persicaria, and the remnants of 16 other plant species.
“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,” Nielsen said in an emailed press release.
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Revisiting Tollund Man’s digestive tract with new eyes proved to be a smart idea. Naturally preserved mummies offer a unique glimpse into the past, revealing details like a person’s physical appearance (certainly the case here!), clothing, health, diet, among other things. In this case, Nielsen and her colleagues sought to better document what the man ate, determine how the food was prepared, and check his gut contents for signs of disease. By quantifying the ingredients of the man’s final meal, the team was hoping to flag any unusual foods linked to ritual sacrifices.
For the analysis, which took place from 2019 to 2020, the team analyzed materials taken from Tollund Man’s large intestine, including macrofossils, pollen, non-pollen palynomorphs (also known as NPPS—these are things like microscopic bits of plants, spores, and eggs of parasites), proteins, and fat.
“We can now pretty much reconstruct the recipe of the last meal of Tollund Man,” said Nielsen. “The meal was quite nutritious and consisted of a barley porridge with some seeds from pale persicaria and flax.”
The main ingredients—not including the fish—in Tollund Man’s last meal (shown in their relative quantities: 1) Barley, 2) pale persicaria, 3) flax, 4) black-bindweed, 5) sand, 6) gold-of-pleasure, 7) fat hen, 8) corn spurrey, 9) hemp-nettles and 10) field pansy.Image: Museum Silkeborg
Some 20 plant species were detected, but at less than 1% of the total content, the researchers figure these were merely incidental ingredients. The protein analysis suggests fish was part of the meal, but it’s not known if the fish was added to the porridge. The autopsy from 1950 failed to detect this ingredient. Also, the new evidence suggests the porridge was cooked in a clay pot.
“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,” said Nielsen.
Tollund Man’s final meal does not appear to be anything out of the ordinary, and it’s likely representative of a typical dish served in northern Europe during the Iron Age. That said, the presence of seeds from pale persicaria was considered to be a bit strange. Persicaria is a weed, and it grew alongside barley and flax but was harvested together with the grains. Its seeds were typically removed during threshing, but in this case, the threshing waste that fell to the ground—seeds included—along with grains of sand and charcoal, was picked up and thrown into the porridge, according to the research.
“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,” Nielsen noted.
Despite the extraneous ingredients, this meal was quite nutritious, providing Tollund Man with half a day’s worth of calories.
“Our study shows that it can be beneficial to re-analyse bog body gut contents stored in museum collections, and that combining pollen, NPP, macrofossil, steroid and protein analyses can yield further useful data,” conclude the scientists in their study. “Our quantification and identification of the different ingredients in Tollund Man’s last meal at a new level of detail can be used for comparison in future projects.”
Tollund Man was not in perfect health, as the team found evidence of intestinal parasites, specifically whipworm, tapeworm, and mawworm. He likely got infected with tapeworm cysts after consuming raw or undercooked meat. Whipworm and mawworm are transmitted by eggs in human poop, so Tollund Man’s infection could be due to poor sanitation and/or poor hygiene. His multiple infections could also be a sign of people living close together with animals and limited access to clean water.
So, plenty of fresh insights revealed in the new paper, and all provided by 2,400-year-old materials stuffed into an ancient large intestine. But such is the essence of archaeology, in which scientists tease out detail from the tiniest scraps of evidence. Like this research from earlier this year, detailing the strange trek taken by an ancient, defleshed human skull.