There’s a ton of history behind wine, but beer was just crowned the OG of alcohol. Archaeologists announced that they discovered the world’s oldest brewery in a cave outside of Haifa, Israel. The 13,000+ year-old find answers a lot of questions about how brews came to be.
A team of researchers led by Stanford professor Li Liu published these discoveries in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences. Liu wrote, “This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world.”
Liu’s crew made their finds in Raqefet Cave, an ancient burial ground and archaeological treasure trove. The academics were actually trying to research the eating habits of the Natufian people, an early tribe believed to exist in the transitionary period between hunter-gatherers and the start of agricultural society.
Instead of discovering what the Natufians were noshing on, the academics discovered what the tribe drank. Specifically, carved into the rocks, the team found mortars containing starch residues and phytolith, elements that are “typical in the transformation of wheat and barley to booze.”
The report describes a pair of mortars used for cereal storage and a third mortar purposed for pounding, cooking, and brewing beer. The Natufians first used water to germinate seven different plant families: wheat, oats, barley, legumes and as well as fall and other bast fibers. Then the sprouts were drained, dried, and mashed into a malt. After water was added, the mixture was heated for up to four hours. Finally, the mixture was left to ferment and react with airborne wild yeast for a minimum of one day.
The final product does not bear a strong resemblance to beer as we know it. To be kind, one might describe the consistency as akin to a light porridge. The alcohol content is also much lower. (We know this because the researchers actually recreated the brewing process successfully back at their labs—the sacrifices required by science!)
The discovery debunks two major theories of alcohol historians. First of all, beer is much older than previously believed. Before this breakthrough dig, most estimates placed beer at about 5000 years old.
In addition, the finding disproves the polarizing theory that beer was originally byproduct of bread-making. The mortars in the cave provide evidence both that beer existed before bread and that brewing was its own operation. “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,” Liu added.
(In fact, there is now an argument that some aspects of agriculture may have developed to support beer-making.)
Liu’s team believes that beer was involved with death rituals in particular. A previous excavation at the Raqefet Cave revealed 30 graves through which we learned Natufians bury their dead on beds of flowers. In the case of the beer, just think about a drunk wake or repass.
Header image courtesy of Dani Nadel