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Stone Age Beer

Beer was more important than bread for our Stone Age ancestors


Around 11,500 years ago, hunter gatherers ceased being nomadic and began to cultivate crops and form settlements.   But what is it that made our Stone Age ancestors start harvesting?  A logical explanation, and a widely held belief, is that it was done in order to eat.  However, a growing body of research has shown that flour for making bread wasn’t the reason why Stone Age people first began growing and storing grain, like wheat and barley, rather it was beer.

The idea that Stone Age people started cultivated grains for alcohol instead of bread was first put forward in the 1950s when botanist Jonathan Sauer suggested that hunter gatherers needed more incentive than just food to completely change their lifestyle.  It was the discovery that a “mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage”, he suggested.

Researchers have suggested that it wasn’t just the altered state of awareness that the people would have enjoyed from drinking beer, but it was also nutritionally superior to other food in their diet, apart from animal proteins.  According to Gloria Dawson, who recently revisited the theory in the science magazine Nautilus, beer was safer to drink than water because the fermentation process killed pathogenic microorganisms.

The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize. 

Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, has said the earliest evidence of beer-making comes from the Natufian culture, which was initially a hunter gatherer society that inhabited an area in the Eastern Mediterranean called the Levant (now Syria, Jordan, and Israel) about 13,000 years ago.  Archaeological remains found in this region include grinding equipment, boiling stones, cooking rocks, tools, and other items which suggest the inhabitants possessed the technology brewing requires.

According to Hayden, once people understood the effects of alcohol, it became a central part of feasts and other social gatherings that forged bonds between people and inspired creativity. 

By April Holloway



Malt is the essential ingredient for ale and beer. I would say the argument is not just about bread or beer, which came first? The question should be when was malting discovered - how and when did they learn to make malt sugars from the grain? There is good evidence for large malting floors at many natufian sites.


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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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