For loads of people around the world, nothing tastes better than a cold beer at the end of a long day. Apparently, this is nothing new, since the latest research seems to show that brewing beer could be the reason why our ancient ancestors began cultivating grains in the first place, instead of for the production of bread.
Researchers from Stanford University were exploring a cave in Israel when they uncovered evidence of the earliest known beer-making operation, which they believe actually predates the cultivation of cereals. Both of these milestones were made by the Natufians, who used to live in the eastern Mediterranean as hunter-gatherers over 10,000 years ago.
The team of researchers was led by Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford University. Together, they analyzed stone mortar traces, which were around 13,000 years old. These mortars were found at a Natufian graveyard in Raqefet Cave, close to where Haifa is located today.
The idea that the original domestication of cereals was for beer production and not bread is far from new. In fact, it's been around since the 1950s and has been becoming increasingly popular due to findings that beer was an essential part of the society of the Natufians.
The team was not actively searching for beer-related evidence, but simply came across it while trying to discover what plant-based food the Natufians used to eat. It turns out that their findings are evidence of a large-scale brewing operation, which Liu called “the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world.”
The team believes that their discovery may be between 11,700 and 13,700 years old, which would predate the oldest-known evidence of bread making, which was located at a Natufian site in East Jordan. The researchers believe that the Natufians brewed and drank beer as part of a ritual to honor the dead.
What's interesting though, is that even the most professional brewers today probably wouldn’t recognize this ancient beer. This is because it would have looked like a thin variation of porridge, which would include ingredients such as oats, barley, wheat, flax, and certain legumes.
The researchers believe that a 3-step process was used to brew this ancient beer. Firstly, they would leave the grains to germinate in water, before draining and drying them out, thereby producing a malt. Next, they would mash and heat them. Finally, they would add some wild yeast and leave the entire mixture to ferment over time.
To test this hypothesis, the team actually recreated this ancient brewing process step by step. Amazingly, they claim to have managed to recreate a brew which would have been very similar to the Natufians' ancient beer.
“This discovery indicates that making alcohol was not necessarily a result of agricultural surplus production,” Liu said. “But it was developed for ritual purposes and spiritual needs, at least to some extent, prior to agriculture.”