This week, archaeologists investigating an ancient Natufian burial chamber near Haifa, Israel, discovered what they consider to be evidence of a 13,000-year-old brewing process. Previous finds have indicated that organised brewing did not begin until about 5000 years ago, so this finding might cause a big stir in the anthropological community.
“This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world” said Stanford University’s Professor Li Liu, who led the research team. The team was looking for clues as to what the Natufian people’s diet consisted of, when they found residual deposits in the cave floor. The wheat-and-barley-based alcohol was fermented in 60cm holes dug into the cave. Two of these had evidently been used as storage, one for pre-fermentation mashing and one during the brew process itself.
The location of the brewing apparatus, right next to a religious burial site, seems to suggest that the Natufian’s drinking had a ritual or ceremonial context. The Natufians were among first nomadic hunter gatherer societies in the world begin to practice agriculture.
So, is it any wonder that they soon turned to making beer?
Not according to many anthropologists and historians over the past few years. Recent studies have suggested that brewing alcohol might have played a larger role in forming civilisation than we may have previously thought. This finding then, of a semi-nomadic society engaged in brewing before the onset of permanent agriculture, will only add strength to that theory.
Which unfortunately, is not what the Natufians were doing with their beer. Unlike today’s highly refined, flavoured and strictly regulated beers, this ancient alcohol was probably rather weak and had the texture of thin gruel or porridge. And how do the scientists know this? Only because they brewed up some themselves.
In order to test that the residual molecules of starch and phytoliths (basically, fossilised plant material) found at the site were genuinely related to historical brewing, the excavation team knocked up a batch of this prehistoric beer. Using rudimentary brewing techniques that would have been available at the time, such as underground heating of mashed malt and wild-yeast fermentation, the team’s experiment created similar residues to those found in the cave floor holes.
And you can now buy that beer from your local off-licence! We’re joking – don’t expect Natufian ale on the shelves of your local stockist anytime soon. Still this important news could turn our previously conceived notions of the history of alcohol and brewing on their head.
“Beer making was an integral part of rituals and feasting, a social regulatory mechanism in hierarchical societies,” said Jiajing Wang, also of Stanford University in California, USA. Modern theories suggest that alcohol may have played an important role in helping nomadic peoples adapt to more hierarchical and law based sedentary life. Either way, next time you’re sipping a pint down the local – give a thought to the Natufian people of 10,000 BC. After all, without them your pint might not have ever existed.
Cheers to that!