Alcohol for the Ancients: The Oldest Drinks in the World

Alcohol for the Ancients: The Oldest Drinks in the World

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Archaeological records related to ancient drinks are quite rare, but they take us to realms of ancient life which were hidden for a long time. With new technologies and chemical analysis, scientists are finally able to write a detailed story of ancient feasts, celebrations, and rituals during which people consumed alcoholic drinks.

It is unknown when the word ‘alcohol’ was used for the first time. It is also very difficult to find out how the first alcoholic drink was made and why people decided it was tasty. However, the oldest known alcoholic drink comes from around c. 7,000 – 6,500 BC, from the Chinese village Jiahu in the Henan province. Researchers discovered the drink was made of rice, grapes, honey, and hawthorn berries.

People in the Middle East started to make a barley beer at the same time. However, archaeological evidence of the oldest barley beer comes from circa 6,000 BC and was excavated in Georgia. As for wine, researchers discovered archaeological evidence of this drink from circa 7,000 BC while at a site that belonged to an ancient culture who once lived near the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

Drinking in the Middle East

In Egypt, the use of barley was quite common in the production of alcohol. This drink was the second most common source of liquid people consumed. (Water was the first.) It was so popular that even children drank it. There is evidence of beer production since the earliest days of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Moreover, in Egypt, as in Sumeria, alcohol was also used as medication.

An Egyptian funerary model of a bakery and brewery.

An Egyptian funerary model of a bakery and brewery. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Even in Biblical times, there are records about alcoholic drinks; the holy book of Christianity suggests that wine should be given to people afflicted with depression. According to Proverbs 31:6-7, the influence of wine helps people forget their misery.

Greek and Roman Celebrations of Wine

The European tradition of drinking wine probably started in the territory of Classical Greece when people drank it during breakfast. A person who didn't drink wine in ancient Greece was considered a barbarian. However, many famous philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato, criticized their society for drinking too much.

Wine boy at a Greek symposium.

Wine boy at a Greek symposium. ( Public Domain )

As for the ancient Romans, they didn't produce wine until they conquered lands where its production and consumption was already established. It seems that they adopted the idea of drinking wine from the Greeks and Etruscans.

Hellenistic mosaics discovered close to the city of Paphos depicting Dionysus, god of wine.

Hellenistic mosaics discovered close to the city of Paphos depicting Dionysus, god of wine. ( Public Domain )

James Grout's Encyclopedia Romana explains: “The earliest work on wine and agriculture was written in Punic. After the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, the Senate decreed that this treatise be translated into Latin, and it subsequently became the source for all Roman writing on viticulture. Ironically, it was Cato who had insisted on the destruction of Carthage in the Punic wars and who, about 160 BC, wrote De Agri Cultura, the first survey of Roman viticulture, which, significantly, also is the earliest surviving prose work in Latin. In it, he discusses the production of wine on large slave-based villa estates, which suggests how important vine cultivation had become in an agrarian economy that traditionally was based on subsistence farming. Indeed, by 154 BC, says Pliny, wine production in Italy was unsurpassed. That same year, the cultivation of vines was prohibited beyond the Alps, and, for the first two centuries BC, wine was exported to the provinces, especially to Gaul, in exchange for the slaves whose labor was needed to cultivate the large estate vineyards. (In part, the wine trade with Gaul was so extensive because its inhabitants, writes Diodorus Siculus, were besotted by wine, which was drunk unmixed and without moderation). But, as more land was expropriated by the villa estates, the displaced rural population was forced to emigrate to Rome until, by the first century BC, the city had approximately one million inhabitants.”

The ruins of Carthage.

The ruins of Carthage. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Ancient evidence of alcoholic drinks has also been found in China and pre-Hispanic Mexico and parts of South America. But what dregs of ancient booze have managed to survive the passage of time?

A Bottle of Archaeological Dreams

A bottle of unusual wine was discovered in Germany in 1867. In 350 AD, a Roman noble was buried with a bottle of locally produced wine. When it was unearthed near the city of Speyer, the researchers were shocked that there was still liquid within the container. It was the oldest known liquid wine recovered from an archaeological site. Although it was analyzed by a chemist during the First World War, the bottle was apparently never opened. Now, researchers still debate if they should open it or not. From a microbiological point of view, it could be dangerous to open the ancient bottle. The wine bottle has been on display at the Pfalz Historical Museum for more than a century, and though it is a curious artifact, no research team dares to open it.

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