Archaeologists think they’ve found the world’s oldest brewery, and it predates agriculture

Archaeologists working in Israel have uncovered what they think is the world’s oldest brewery, which may have been producing booze as far back as 13,700 years ago. Anyone who enjoys a tipple owes these people a lot.

The new find pre-dates evidence of previous beer-making by several thousand years – this could mean human beings were cooking up alcohol much earlier than we thought.

Not only that, but the researchers think this could be evidence that the domestication of some cereals (meaning efforts to purposefully cultivate crops) may have been prompted by the need to keep the beer flowing – at least in certain parts of the world.

“This accounts for the oldest record of [human]-made alcohol in the world,” says one of the team, Li Liu from Stanford University in California.

“This discovery indicates that making alcohol was not necessarily a result of agricultural surplus production, but it was developed for ritual purposes and spiritual needs, at least to some extent, prior to agriculture.”

You probably wouldn’t want a taste of this beer though, irrespective of how long it’s been hanging around: 13,000 years ago it was most probably more like porridge or gruel, according to the archaeologists. It was probably weaker than today’s beer too.

Investigating residues taken from a cave near what is now Haifa in Israel, used by the ancient Natufian people as a graveyard, the researchers found evidence of starch and phytolith plant particles – both linked to the transformation of wheat and barley into beer.

To test their hypothesis, the team ran a series of experiments to mimic the way the ancient Natufian people were thought to have brewed beer: turning wheat or barley into malt, mashing and heating the malt, then fermenting it with airborne wild yeast.

A careful study of starch granules in the lab through this process suggests this was indeed a place where beer was brewed and drunk, possibly to mark Natufian funerals. Even 13,000 years ago, the funeral wake was still a tradition.

“Beer making was an integral part of rituals and feasting, a social regulatory mechanism in hierarchical societies,” says one of the team, Jiajing Wang from Stanford University.

Besides their lab tests, the researchers also found evidence of grain seeds being pounded and crushed on stone mortars recovered from the site, which also backs up the hypothesis that beer was being brewed here.

And given the close connection between culture, celebration, and a shared fondness for alcohol, every discovery like this tells us a little bit more about the beer drinkers as well as the beer itself.

“If we’re right, this is the earliest testament in the world to alcohol production of any kind,” one of the archaeologists, Dani Nadel from the University of Haifa in Israel, told AFP.

The research has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

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