An international team of researchers from Stanford University and the University of Haifa has found the oldest archaeological evidence of cereal-based beer brewing. The discovery is described in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
The consumption of fermented and alcoholic beverages is one of the most prevalent human behaviors, but the time and cultural context of its origins remain unclear.
Archaeological evidence for alcohol production and use is usually associated with fermenting domesticated species in agricultural societies, such as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and South America.
It has long been speculated that humans’ thirst for beer may have been the stimulus behind cereal domestication, and some scientists have attributed this invention to the Natufians, a Neolithic culture that inhabited the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean from about 13,000 to 9,700 BC.
“Alcohol making and food storage were among the major technological innovations that eventually led to the development of civilizations in the world, and archaeological science is a powerful means to help reveal their origins and decode their contents,” said Stanford University researcher Dr. Li Liu.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to present our findings, which shed new light on a deeper history of human society.”
The archaeologists analyzed residues from 13,000-year-old stone mortars found in Raqefet Cave, a Natufian burial cave site located near what is now Haifa, Israel.
Their analysis confirmed that these mortars were used for brewing of wheat/barley, as well as for food storage.
“The Natufian remains in Raqefet Cave never stop surprising us,” said University of Haifa’s Professor Dani Nadel.
“We exposed a Natufian burial area with about 30 individuals; a wealth of small finds such as flint tools, animal bones and ground stone implements, and about 100 stone mortars and cupmarks.”
“And now, with the production of beer, the Raqefet Cave remains provide a very vivid and colorful picture of Natufian lifeways, their technological capabilities and inventions.”
The Natufians exploited at least seven plant types associated with the mortars, including wheat or barley, oat, legumes and bast fibers (including flax).
They used bedrock mortars for pounding and cooking plant-foods, and for brewing wheat/barley-based beer, likely served in ritual feasts 13,000 years ago.
“Ancient beer is far from what we drink today. It was most likely a multi-ingredient concoction like porridge or thin gruel,” said Jiajing Wang, a doctoral student at Stanford University.
The archaeologists believe that the Natufians used a three-stage brewing process.
First, starch of wheat or barley would be turned into malt. This happens by germinating the grains in water to then be drained, dried and stored. Then, the malt would be mashed and heated. Finally, it would be left to ferment with airborne wild yeast.
“The evidence of beer brewing at Raqefet Cave 13,000 years ago provides yet another example of the complex Natufian social and ritual realms,” the scientists said.
“Beer brewing may have been, at least in part, an underlying motivation to cultivate cereals in the southern Levant, supporting the beer hypothesis proposed by archaeologists more than six decades ago.”
Li Liu et al. 2018. Fermented beverage and food storage in 13,000 y-old stone mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel: Investigating Natufian ritual feasting. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 21: 783-793; doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2018.08.008
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