Last Meal of 2,400-Year-Old Mummified Corpse Revealed in New Study

A new study brings insights into the life and death of an ancient mummy. Scientists have uncovered the final meal of the famed Tollund Man, who was killed about 2,400 years ago in what was likely a case of human sacrifice.

The Tollund Man was discovered in 1950 by peat diggers, according to Denmark's Museum Silkeborg. The corpse was found deep in a bog, curled up with a rope around his neck, leading researchers to conclude that he had been hanged.

The Tollund Man was 30 to 40 years old at the time of his death, and, because he had spent the past thousands of years in a peat bog, his body was remarkably well-preserved and naturally mummified, offering a rare glimpse into human life during ancient times.

Now, research published by the Cambridge University Press is adding to the Tollund Man's complex history. Using new technologies, the study "re-examined" an array of "plant macrofossils, pollen, non-pollen palynomorphs, steroid markers and proteins" discovered in the "gut" of the Early Iron Age mummy, who died between 405 BC and 380 BC.

The analysis has led researchers to identify the specifics of his last meal, which included "a porridge containing barley, pale persicaria and flax, and probably some fish," eaten 12 to 24 hours before he was killed.

Almost all the reanalyzed material from the Tollund Man came from his large intestine—and in addition to understanding what the man ate before his death, researchers have identified the specific methods with which his final meal was prepared.

Tollund Man
The Tollund Man, a bog body displayed at the Museum Silkeborg in Denmark. Tim Graham/Getty Images

For example, "the fragmentation of the cereals and other seeds suggests that these had been ground before being cooked," while "the presence of a charred food crust in Tollund Man's gut content suggests that the meal was a porridge cooked in a clay vessel."

Threshing waste, or seed husks, were also found in Tollund Man's remains—and he's reportedly not the only bog body to have eaten them during his last meal. As such, researchers speculate "that wild seeds were an ingredient used for special occasions, including human sacrifice." However, they also could have simply been a way to improve the food's taste or nutritional value.

While the meal might have been nutritionally sound, another discovery highlights the challenges of the time. The Tollund Man was found to have been infected with three types of parasites at the time of his death—tapeworm, whipworm and mawworm. According to the study, the worms were likely caused by a combination of eating raw or undercooked meat and poor hygiene practices.

Nina Helt Nielsen, the study's lead author and head of research at Museum Silkeborg, said the latest discoveries allow us to connect with past historical eras in remarkable ways.

"Sometimes it can be very difficult to relate to prehistoric societies that date back several thousand years," she told Newsweek. "Through the detailed knowledge we have obtained in this study—where we have almost been able to reconstruct the recipe of Tollund Man's last meal, have identified how the grain and seeds were processed before they were cooked, and even that the meal burnt a little— we get very close to the Iron Age people."

Nielsen added, "You can almost imagine how they were sitting by the fireplace and cooking the meal."