Forget coffee, beer or cola – it’s tea that is the world’s favorite drink. And now, there’s new evidence that suggests people have been enjoying a nice cuppa for even longer than previously thought.
A new study has found the oldest known tea leaves in the world, from around 2,100 years ago. Archeologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing discovered the tea remains in a tomb for Jing Emperor Liu Qi of the Han dynasty, in the north of Xi’an (incidentally, the same city where China’s famous “Terracotta Army” can be found.) The emperor – sometimes referred to as Jingdi – is believed to have been so fond of the drink, he was buried alongside the leaves so he could enjoy a brew in the afterlife.
Liu Qi’s tomb was excavated in the late 1990s, however, they needed a bit of scientific analysis to identify the decomposed vegetative plant. In their study, recently published in Scientific Reports, the researchers detail how they used electron microscopes, chromatography, and mass spectrometry to search the plants for theanine and caffeine – two chemicals only both found together in Theaceae plants, the family in which tea bushes are found.
Samples of the discovered decomposed tea. Houyuan Lu/Scientific Reports.
The same study also looked at tea leaves from a separate third century C.E. tomb in Nigari, once the capital of the ancient Zhang Zhung Kingdom, in western Tibet. This was a particularly interesting discovery for the team as it details some of the earliest evidence of the Silk Road (no, not that one) trading route.
Tea was thought to be traded across to eastern China and Tibet somewhere between 625 C.E. and 680 C.E. However, finding evidence of tea in this third century C.E. tomb suggests that trading across the country actually started 400 years earlier than that.
“The discovery shows how modern science can reveal important previously unknown details about ancient Chinese culture,” said Professor Dorian Fuller, Director of the International Centre for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology in London, who participated in the study.
“The identification of the tea found in the emperor’s tomb complex gives us a rare glimpse into very ancient traditions which shed light on the origins of one of the world’s favourite beverages.”
Portrait of tea-aficionado Jingdi. Brücke-Osteuropa/Wikimedia Commons