If you’re searching for an original brewmaster to toast the next time you knock back a cold one, you might be out of luck. It’s difficult to attribute the invention of beer to a particular culture or time period, but the world’s first fermented beverages most likely emerged alongside the development of cereal agriculture some 12,000 years ago. As hunter-gatherer tribes settled into agrarian civilizations based around staple crops like wheat, rice, barley and maize, they may have also stumbled upon the fermentation process and started brewing beer. In fact, some anthropologists have argued that these early peoples’ insatiable thirst for hooch may have contributed to the Neolithic Revolution by inspiring new agricultural technologies.
The earliest known alcoholic beverage is a 9,000-year-old Chinese concoction made from rice, honey and fruit, but the first barley beer was most likely born in the Middle East. While people were no doubt imbibing it much earlier, hard evidence of beer production dates back about 5,000 years to the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia. Archeologists have unearthed ceramic vessels from 3400 B.C. still sticky with beer residue, and 1800 B.C.’s “Hymn to Ninkasi”—an ode to the Sumerian goddess of beer—describes a recipe for a beloved ancient brew made by female priestesses. These nutrient-rich suds were a cornerstone of the Sumerian diet, and were likely a safer alternative to drinking water from nearby rivers and canals, which were often contaminated by animal waste.
Beer consumption also flourished under the Babylonian Empire, but few ancient cultures loved knocking back a few as much as the Egyptians. Workers along the Nile were often paid with an allotment of a nutritious, sweet brew, and everyone from pharaohs to peasants and even children drank beer as part of their everyday diet. Many of these ancient beers were flavored with unusual additives such as mandrake, dates and olive oil. More modern-tasting libations would not arrive until the Middle Ages, when Christian monks and other artisans began brewing beers seasoned with hops.