Guts Reveal The Last Meal Of Incredibly Preserved Bog Body From 2,400 Years Ago

The well-preserved head of Tollund Man, complete with a pained expression and a noose still wrapped around his neck. Image credit: A. Mikkelsen

Some 2,400 years ago, a very unfortunate guy was killed, perhaps as a human sacrifice, and dumped in a Danish bog. Fortunately for us, this unusual death meant his body was naturally mummified and remained in remarkable condition, providing clear insights into his appearance and lifestyle. In a new study, reported in the journal Antiquity, researchers even managed to piece together his last meal by looking at the contents of guts - parasitic worms and all. 

Known as the Tollund Man, the bog body was discovered in the 1950s by peat diggers on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark. Submerged in the cool, acidic, and low-oxygen conditions of the peat bog, much of his skin and organs remained amazingly intact, complete with a pained expression on his face and a noose still wrapped around his neck. The man’s features were so well preserved, investigations initially suspect the body belonged to a local boy who recently went missing.

A large part of his gastrointestinal tract, as well as its contents, were also found to be preserved. In new a new study, researchers from the Museum Silkeborg and the National Museum of Denmark used the latest technology to reanalyze the stomach contents of the famous Tollund Man.

Their analysis revealed traces of cereals and wild plants — included barley, flax, gold-of-pleasure seeds, and seeds of pale persicaria. — that was likely eaten in a porridge-like meal in his gastrointestinal tract. Evidence of proteins suggests he had also recently eaten fish. On top of this meal, they discovered trace amounts of 16 plant species, although this made up less than 1 percent of the total stomach contents. 

All in all, they believe his last meal was a fairly typical Iron Age meal of fish and porridge, most likely guzzled down some 12 to 24 hours before death. 

“We can now pretty much reconstruct the recipe of the last meal of Tollund Man. The meal was quite nutritious and consisted of a barley porridge with some seeds from pale persicaria and flax,” Dr Nina H Nielsen, lead study author from the Museum Silkeborg in Denmark, said in a statement.

“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,” added Dr Nielsen. 

On top of his last meal, his guts also harbored something much less pleasant: hundreds of parasite eggs, including whipworm, mawworm, and tapeworm. Since this period of history was not known for its hygiene and sanitation, the infestation of worms is almost certainly the result of undercooked meat or food and water contaminated with human waste. 

Despite being hung, the careful position of the body suggests the man was not executed but was perhaps a victim of human sacrifice. Furthermore, the fact he was eating a relatively hearty meal just hours before his death suggests he was not a down-trodden prisoner but enjoyed a relatively comfortable life (at least by the standards of the European Iron Age). The researchers hoped by further studying the man's guts they might be able to find evidence of special ingredients that were only used at special occasions like human sacrifices, but this investigation proved inconclusive. 

For now, the death of the Tollund Man remains somewhat of a mystery. 


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