A new study suggests that the people of ancient China loved nothing more than sinking a few beers some 5,000 years ago.
Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the earliest direct evidence of beer brewing in China, a trove of beer-making equipment dating from between 3400 and 2900 BCE, discovered at the Mijiaya site in Shaanxi province. Along with this archaeological find, scientists conducted an analysis of residue on the ancient pottery, jars, and funnels found, revealing a surprising recipe for the beer.
“To our knowledge, our data provide the earliest direct evidence of in situ beer production in China, showing that an advanced beer-brewing technique was established around 5,000 years ago,” the researchers said in the study, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research looked at the shape of starch grains and phytoliths found in the residue to identify what was used to brew the beer. This chemical examination found the recipe included broomcorn millet, a grain called Job’s tears, lily, yam, snake gourd root, and – most surprisingly – barley. Although barley is a staple ingredient of modern beer, this came as a shock to the researchers as it suggests that this cultivated grain arrived in the Central Plain of China 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
A beer funnel found at the Mijiaya site which was used in the brewing process. No, not a beer bong. Courtesy of Jianjing Wang.
Domesticated in western Eurasia, barley didn't become a staple food in China until around 2,000 years ago, which means these ancient people went to the effort of cultivating the barley for beer far before they farmed it for food – that's some interesting priorities.
So, the real question is, how would this brew fare against today’s tipple? Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to say. When asked by The Guardian, lead author Jiajing Wang of Stanford University replied: "I really have no idea. That is beyond our research methods.”
This is not the earliest evidence of beer brewing: For some 10,000 years, beer has traveled alongside human history. Its exact origin is hazy, but archaeologists have found early depictions of beer and brewing in parts of ancient Iraq and ancient Egypt. Some studies have even gone as far to link beer with the rise of human civilization.
The researchers of this study hold an equally high opinion of beer. In the study, they concluded: "The production and consumption of Yangshao beer may have contributed to the emergence of hierarchical societies in the Central Plain, the region known as the cradle of Chinese civilization.”