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Ancient Beer: 13,000-Year-Old Site May Be the World’s Oldest Brewery

Even the most serious craft beer drinkers today wouldn’t recognize the ancient beer, which would have been closer to a thin gruel than a foamy pour.
Our ancestors may have started brewing beer 13,000 years ago (although their versions didn't look much like beer today).

Our ancestors may have started brewing beer 13,000 years ago (although their versions didn't look much like beer today).

For many people, nothing tastes better than a glass of cold beer, whether enjoyed at the end of a long day of work or while relaxing on a summer afternoon. But brewing beer—not baking bread—could be the reason our ancestors began cultivating grains in the first place.

Inside a cave in Israel, researchers from Stanford University have found evidence of the earliest known beer-making operation, which they think may predate the cultivation of the first cereals.

Both of these milestones belong to the Natufians, a hunter-gatherer group who made the eastern Mediterranean region their home more than 10,000 years ago.

For the new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, a team led by Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford, analyzed traces from stone mortars dating back some 13,000 years. They found the mortars at a Natufian graveyard in Raqefet Cave, near the modern-day city of Haifa.

More evidence that beer came before bread.

The controversial idea that beer, and not bread, inspired the original domestication of cereals is far from a new theory. It’s been around since the 1950s, in fact, and has been gaining ground in recent years thanks to research suggesting that the Natufians considered beer an essential part of the feasts that were so important to their society.

Liu and her colleagues were not looking for evidence of beer-making inside Raqefet Cave, but were simply investigating what kinds of plant foods the Natufians may have been consuming. As it turned out, what they discovered was evidence of a large brewing operation, which Liu called in a statement “the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world.”

The researchers think their findings could be between 11,700 to 13,700 years old, predating the earliest known evidence of bread making recently uncovered at a Natufian site in East Jordan. They believe the Natufians made and consumed the beer as part of ritual feasts for their dead.

Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave (left), compared to the those replicated in beer brewing experiments.

Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave (left) are compared to starches replicated in the researchers' beer brewing experiments.

Ancient beer-brewing was reenacted step by step.

Even the most knowledgeable craft beer drinkers today wouldn’t recognize ancient beer, which would have been closer to a thin porridge or gruel made of multiple ingredients, such as wheat, barley, oats, legumes or flax. According to the new study, the Natufians followed a three-step process: First, they germinated the grains in water, then drained and dried them, producing malt. Next, they mashed and heated them, before finally adding wild yeast and leaving the mixture to ferment.

To test their theories, the researchers actually reenacted this ancient beer-making process step by step. The result, they believe, was strikingly similar to what the Natufians brewed.

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

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