Oldest Evidence of Evidence of Alcohol Production Found From 13,000 Years Ago

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In this photo illustration, bubbles produced by C02 are created in a glass of beer on July 2, 2018 in London, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty Image

Fermented and alcoholic drinks have played an important role in human society for thousands of years, however, the origins of the sophisticated technologies required to make it have remained elusive.

Now, researchers have cast new light on this issue after uncovering what they say is the oldest evidence of beer-brewing in the world—and indeed the earliest evidence of man-made alcohol production—at a site in Israel.

A team led by archaeologist Li Liu from Stanford University were investigating Raqefet Cave near Haifa, which was once a burial site of the Natufians—a group of nomadic and semi-nomadic people who lived in the eastern Mediterranean region of the Levant between roughly 15,000 and 11,500 years ago.

Inside the cave, among the human remains, are stone mortars which contain the 13,000-year-old residue of beer, according to a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

"Usually in archaeology when you study old remains, organic remains, things are not always clear cut," Dani Nadel, a co-author of the study from the University of Haifa, told Newsweek. "But here, all arrows were pointing at the Natufians brewing beer at Raqefet cave around 13,000 years ago."

To come to their conclusions, the team analyzed residual remains of starch and microscopic plant particles, known as phytolith, which are present in the process of turning wheat and barley into beer.

The evidence suggests that the Natufians brewed their beer in three stages. First, they would have turned the starch from wheat or barley into malt by germinating the grains in water to be drained, dried and stored. The malt would then have been mashed and heated, before being left to ferment with airborne wild yeast.

The team decided to test whether this recipe for ancient beer would have been feasible by attempting to recreate it in experiments. This enabled them to see how starch granules changed during the brewing process. They then compared these granules with the starch remains in the ancient residue, finding clear similarities, which indicated that it did represent beer.

In addition, artifacts that were excavated from the cave also showed evidence that grain seeds were being processed—a requirement for making beer.

"We found evidence of use in the stone mortars," Nadel said. "Some of them were used for pounding and grinding, for example".

The beer residues were dated to between 11,700 and 13,700 years ago, which significantly predates the previous oldest evidence of alcohol production from Neolithic agricultural societies in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and China.

The beer that the Nafutians were brewing was likely quite different to the product we know today. It was probably low in alcohol and content and more akin to a thick liquid like porridge or gruel.

At present it is not clear exactly why the Nafutians were brewing the beverage due to the lack of contextual evidence, although the researchers think there is a possibility that it may have been used for ritual purposes in feasts to venerate the dead.

"There was no sign of Natufian people really living at the site," Nadel said. "So, maybe they only came there when they buried their dead. We don't know how much beer they were brewing but most probably it was for social or ritual purposes."

According to Liu, the discovery indicates that making alcohol was not simply a result of agricultural surpluses but was perhaps developed for specific social needs, in some cases, prior to the emergence of agriculture.

In the paper the authors note that the earliest known bread remains were recently discovered from a Nafutian site in east Jordan. These could date from anywhere between 11,600 to 14,600 years old. So, it is unclear whether cereal cultivation in the region was first developed for making beer-making or bread. But the researchers think that in some areas at least, beer-making may have been the first motivation.

The discovery of ancient Nafutian beer-making shines new light on the technological innovations and social organizations of the ancient people—the last culture in the area which did not practice full-scale agriculture.

Not everyone is completely convinced by the conclusions of the latest paper, however.

"The claim for the earliest evidence for beer brewing in this case hinges on whether or not the observed changes in the starch granules and the degree of damage observed in the cereal remains necessarily means the two mortars from this site were used to brew beer," Bettina Arnold, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Newsweek.

"Storage containers are inferred based on the presence of phytoliths that are assumed to have been used for the malted grain," she said. "However, neither the mortars nor the hypothetical fiber storage containers were used for the actual brewing, only for processing and potentially storing the ingredients for beer. Rigorous standards are currently lacking for such claims, making it impossible to reliably differentiate between actual evidence for brewing—which would include direct evidence for the presence of yeast, which is absent in this study."