‘World’s oldest brewery’ more than it appears

Headlines that archaeologists in Israel have discovered a 13,000 year-old brewery, the “oldest” in the world, overlook the hugely important insight it gives us into early human society and the beginnings of agriculture and civilisation.

This ancient ‘beer’ resembled runny porridge rather than the clear ales we’re used to today

In essence, archaeologists working near Haifa were studying a burial site thought to belong to Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers known as the Natufian people, who were at least semi-nomadic.

What they came across were stone mortars, which were then tested, and traces of wheat and barley-based alcohol were discovered.

It appears that these Palaeolithic people took early forms of wheat and barley, oats, legumes and flax and made a type of ‘beer’ in them, possibly for use in some sort of religious practices.

The trace evidence was analysed in enough detail that the researchers were able to recreate the ‘beer’, germinating the grain, producing a malt, heating the mash and fermenting with wild yeast.

The result was not beer as we would know it today, being thicker and a bit like a “thin gruel” and it was lightly alcoholic.

The discovery is revelatory for a number of reasons.

To begin with, while the oldest known evidence for wine dates back 8,000 years, evidence for beer previously dated back only 5,000 years.

It was thought that, being a more complex process it was largely a side product that grew out of bread making and therefore more likely to have come along when human civilisations had become more sedentary. This discovery dates however pushes that dating back another 8,000 years almost.

Furthermore, it is now the oldest evidence we have for man-made alcohol in history. The previous record holder was a honey-based mead-like drink in China that was 9,000 years old.

Finally, its discovery lends further weight to the idea that it was the use of alcohol in early cults and rituals such as funerary rites that encouraged early humans to settle more permanently which in turn helped the development of agriculture as people then required the means to feed themselves. As this beer was found at a grave site it seems it was being made expressly for the purpose and not as a result of a surplus or accident.

As the report’s authors explained: “It has long been speculated that the thirst for beer may have been the stimulus behind cereal domestication, which led to a major social-technological change in human history; but this hypothesis has been highly controversial.”

One proponent of the idea however is Professor Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania. It was research of his that was previously responsible for finding trace elements of 7,000 year old wine in jars from Iran’s Zagros Mountains and then the 8,000 year old wine in Georgia last year.

It is an idea he has also laid out in his recent book, ‘Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created’, which was previously reported on, here.

Replying to the drinks business he said: “I have long called for finding out more about fermented beverages during 99% of humankind’s history [c.4m BC to 10,000BC], dating back millions of years, since fermentation is likely the first biotechnology of humans and fermented beverages likely served as the universal medicine before synthetics were developed in only the past century and a half.

Lead researcher professor Li Liu recording trace evidence of starch found at the site.

“Much more remains to be discovered about the fermented beverages of the Palaeolithic period, and this latest beer discovery is a step in the right direction. It focuses on analysing Palaeolithic ‘containers’, an all-essential prerequisite of discovering a fermented beverage and up until now unreported for this period.”

In terms of further research he said he wished to see greater examination of “chemical, pollen, and macrobotanical analyses, which in turn may point to a more complex “extreme” beverage, perhaps with fruit, honey, herbs, etc.”

He questioned too whether heating was the method used in the beer’s production.

Earlier this year in eastern Jordan, archaeologists discovered evidence of Palaeolithic bread making, also at a Natufian site, dating back 14,000 years. In that instance the starch remains were fused together suggesting the application of heat. This did not seem to be the case in this instance. How therefore might it have been done?

As for saccharifying starch into sugar, McGovern suggested that these early peoples likely chewed their brewing ingredients first, allowing enzymes in our saliva to breakdown the starch. Once spat out, insects attracted to the sugar might arrive and inoculate it with a wild yeast. It is a process that lasts through to our own time and can be seen in the production of chichi in the Americas, sorghum beer in Africa and rice beer in Asia he said.

Finally, he noted that the indications of ‘cupmarks’ or some kind of container and of varying sizes, “suggest that they could also have been used for preparing and storing food, drink, and medicine of various kinds, not just beer. We’re not just talking about the earliest brewery.”

And it may also suggest that the origins of wine are much, much older too.

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