Some 13,000 years old ago, deep in a cave in present-day Israeli, a group of hunter-gatherers got very merry on some craft-brewed beer.
Archaeologists from Stanford University have recently been excavating the Raqefet Cave and stumbled across a prehistoric brewery that they believe is the world’s oldest record of human-made alcohol, as reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
Humans have obviously always had their priorities straight; the discovery means that people were brewing beer before they were making bread. In fact, this new discovery backs up a 60-year-old hypothesis that the underlying motivation to cultivate cereals was actually to make booze, not food.
“This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world,” lead researcher Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford, said in a statement.
It’s believed that the beer was brewed by the Natufian people, a group of hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean, at some point between 11,700 and 13,700 years ago. The earliest evidence of bread-making dates to between 11,600-14,600 to years ago, so there’s a chance that this beer is indeed the oldest example of processing cereals.
However, it’s unlikely the beer was used for partying purposes. The Raqefet Cave was a sacred graveyard for the Natufian people, as shown by the site's numerous skeletal remains, some of whom were apparently buried on a bed of colorful and aromatic flowers. In light of this, the researchers believe that beer played an important spiritual role in the worship of their dead.
“Beer making was an integral part of rituals and feasting, a social regulatory mechanism in hierarchical societies,” explained study co-author Jiajing Wang.
“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.
While attempting to investigate what plant foods people may have consumed at the time, the researchers came across evidence of beer-making on a series of stones found in the cave. Residue analyses of the stone blocks showed that they had microscopic traces of starch and plant particles known as phytolith, a sure sign of turning barley into booze.
Using other evidence, such as ancient Chinese brewing, the researchers then carried out a series of “experiments” to recreate the prehistoric brew. First, the starch of wheat or barley would be turned into malt by germinating the grains in water. This would be drained and dried out. Then, the malt would be mashed and heated. Finally, this slurry would be fermented using wild yeast.
No offense to the Natufians, but their ancient beer actually sounds fairly gross. The researchers explain that the ancient beer would have been nothing like the beer of today; it was basically a thin porridge-like gruel that contained alcohol. Mmmmm, refreshing.