Archaeologists discover a prehistoric brewery in China dating back 5,000 years
New research has revealed that prehistoric people of China were beer drinkers. Tests have just confirmed residue on vessels that indicate the presence of beer 5,000 years ago in Shaanxi Province in northern China, making it the earliest known beer brewing operation in China.
In 2004, researchers found indications of an alcoholic concoction made from honey, some type of fruit and rice that dated back at least 8,600 years.
This week, the University of Stanford’s Jiajing Wang and colleagues published an article saying they had examined the remnants of amphorae, pots and funnels from the Mijaiya site in Shaanxi that they think were used to brew beer and filter and store it.
At the Mijaiya archaeological site, an early society of semi-nomadic farmers called the Yangshao people likely lived.
A model of Jiangzhai, a Yangshao village (public domain)
The researchers found a yellow coating on the vessels that included microscopic starch fragments and silica particles called phytoliths that occur in the husks of cereals, including barley, Job’s tears, broomcorn millet and tubers, reports New Scientist in an article this week.
Radiocarbon dating placed the age of the pits in which the vessels and small stoves were found at 4,900 to 5,000 years old.
Professor Wang told New Scientist: “Many of the starch grains were damaged, and the damage patterns precisely match the morphological changes developed during malting and mashing.”
Ancient funnel for beer-making unearthed at the dig site. Courtesy of Jiajing Wang/PNAS.
The team also found organic compounds that are produced by mashing and fermenting cereals. Evidence there of steeping, mashing and malting all point to a microbrewery, says a blog posting on Discover.
It was archaeologist Pat McGovern who discovered the world’s oldest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage, in 2004 in the Yellow River Valley not far from Shaanxi. McGovern is with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and has tried to resurrect alcoholic beverages by brewing them from ancient recipes and reconstructions of ancient recipes from residues on vessels, as Ancient Origins has reported.
New Scientist reports:
McGovern says Wang and colleagues have made a compelling case for the emergence of more specialised beverages during succeeding millennia. The only other chemically confirmed evidence for barley beer brewing at a similar time comes from sites in Egypt and Iran, he adds.
Wang said there may be reason to believe beer drinking influenced Neolithic Chinese social structures. “The production and consumption of beer may have been important within newly forming hierarchical societies in the Central Plain – a region known as ‘the cradle of Chinese civilisation’,” New Scientist states.
In early 2015 Professor McGovern was working Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware to recreate ancient beers from around the world, including Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Denmark, Honduras and China. He said then he thought he might have even been able to recreate a drink from Egypt that is 16,000 years old.
Professor McGovern has been extracting alcoholic beverage ingredients from residue on ancient pottery at archaeological sites worldwide and studying references in documents in attempting to resurrect beers and beverages that had been forgotten.
Others have been attempting to brew beer and make wine. In 2013, Great Lakes Brewery in Ohio, with the help of archaeologists in Chicago, tried to brew a Sumerian beer whose recipe dated back 5,000 years.
Proto-cuneiform recording the allocation of beer, probably from southern Iraq, Late Prehistoric period, about 3100-3000 BC (Flickr photo)
Beginning in 2012, Great Lakes tried to replicate the Sumerian beer using only a wooden spoon and clay vessels modeled after artifacts excavated in Iraq. They successfully malted barley on the roof of the brew house and also used a bricklike “beer bread” for the active yeast. Results have yielded a beer full of bacteria, warm and slightly sour.
It’s not just beer that archaeologists are trying to recreate. Ancient-Origins.net reported in 2013 that Italian archaeologists planted a vineyard near Catania in Sicily with the aim of making wine using techniques from classical Rome described in ancient texts. The team expected its first vintage within four years.
The Italian research team will make two types of wine – the type once used for the nobles, which was sweetened with honey and water, and the type made for slaves, which was more vinegary.
There is even a branch of archaeology called alcohol archaeology.
Ancient Origins has reported a few recipes for hangover cures, but those were written down in historical documents. One might wonder if the prehistoric Chinese had any good hangover cures that are lost to history because these alcoholic production methods predate writing systems.
Top image: Ancient Chinese storage containers for alcohol (representational image only). (chinaculturecorner.org)
By Mark Miller