Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the pouring out of beer.

The Strange and Wonderful World of Ancient Brews

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Many of us now enjoy unusual alcoholic beverage concoctions since the advent of the craft beer and cocktail movements.  What we may not realize is that fellow humans have been carrying on like this for millennia, and quite likely for millions of years earlier during hominid times.

Indeed, according to ever-accumulating archaeological and scientific evidence, extreme or hybrid fermented beverages—with natural products of all kinds ranging from fruits and cereals, tubers and tree resins, to honey and spices—were the overwhelming favorites of our ancestors.  If rich and heady brews appealed to their senses and imaginative faculties, underlain by similar genetic heritages, it’s no wonder that they entice us.  And we now have the archaeological, botanical, and chemical tools to rediscover and bring some of these liquid time capsules back to life. 

Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt.

Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt. (E. Michael Smith Chiefio / CC BY 2.5 )

“Universal Medicine”

Our ancestors might have been clueless about the biology and chemistry of plants and mystified by the process of fermentation, but they knew a good thing when they saw, tasted, and experienced it. How else do you explain that social and religious life generally revolved around a specific alcoholic beverage in the past—perhaps, a palm wine or sorghum beer in Africa where our species emerged, grape wine or barley beer in the Middle East, rice beer in east Asia, or a corn or cacao  chicha in the Americas—as it still does today, even in our more secularized societies? Moreover, the importance of alcoholic beverages in our shared history is underscored by their prominent roles in humanity’s pharmacopeias around the globe. As the “universal medicine” before synthetics, it was recognized that those who drank their favorite brew rather than raw water, which could be tainted with bacteria and parasites, generally were healthier, lived longer, and reproduced more.

Wine boy at a Greek symposium.

Wine boy at a Greek symposium. ( Public Domain )

Science Rediscovers Lost History of Drinks

Together with archaeobotany and other disciplines, biomolecular archaeology enables us to rediscover the “lost history” of our ancestors’ drinks and re-create them. Well-dated and well-provenanced excavated pottery, which was invented relatively late in human history—first in China around 16,000 BC, in the Middle East at about 6000 BC, and much later elsewhere--is essential to the endeavor. Pottery’s advantages are that it can be molded into a variety of shapes for processing, serving, and drinking fermented beverages, its virtual indestructibility, and its capacity to absorb and retain ancient organic compounds. We can come on the archaeological scene thousands of years after the pottery was buried, and tease out the tell-tale fingerprint compounds with organic solvents and identify the original contents of a pottery vessel using highly sensitive chemical techniques.

Dr McGovern analyzing at microsope (Courtesy author)

Dr McGovern analyzing at microsope (Courtesy author)

Patrick McGovern and Sam Calagione. (Courtesy author)

Patrick McGovern and Sam Calagione. (Courtesy author)

How to Make a Neolithic Cocktail

The site of Jiahu in China, dating to as early as 7000 BC, is paradigmatic. The small Neolithic village along a tributary of the Yellow River holds the distinction of having yielded the earliest wine (made from native wild grapes and hawthorn tree fruit), mead (from honey), and beer (from rice, which had just begun to be domesticated). These ingredients, based on our chemical analyses, had been mixed together in pottery jars with high necks and flaring rims, which were ideally shaped to hold and serve liquids. You could call this extreme fermented beverage a “Neolithic grog or cocktail.”

The Jiahu beverage was improvised during a revolutionary era when many plants and animals were first domesticated, thus laying the foundation for year-round habitation and civilization as we know it. Jiahu led the way in this new way of life with the earliest playable musical instruments (bone flutes), silk textiles, domesticated rice and pig, fish-breeding, pictographic writing on tortoise shells for divination, and, of course, a suitably complex and delicious alcoholic beverage to sustain one in the afterlife.

Neolithic Gudi bone flute found at Jiahu, on display at the Henan Museum

Neolithic Gudi bone flute found at Jiahu, on display at the Henan Museum (Asgitner/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Spirits for Spirits

China is all about long traditions, and still today the people communicate with their dead ancestors via a high-alcohol millet or rice wine, which is consumed in quantity by a family intermediary. This is fitting, since “the spirits are all drunk.” “Bells and drums” are played at the ceremony’s conclusion, and we can imagine the Neolithic flutes in the Jiahu tombs serving a similar purpose 7000 years earlier. The jars with the “Neolithic cocktail” were carefully placed near the mouths of the deceased, perhaps for easier drinking in the afterlife.

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