beer making in ancient Egypt
No one knows why man made the switch to agriculture. There at least three dozen major theories. One, the beer theory, argues that people decided to settle down and grow grain so they sit around and drink beer together in small villages. Forty percent of the wheat from Sumerian harvest went to make beer.

Neolithic food consisted of barely bread, beer, and likely a variety of meat and grain dishes. The oldest barely beer have been dated to 3400 B.C. The date was determined by analyzing samples of beer extracted from ancient jars with solvents.

Archaeologists debate which came first bread or beer. Beer starts with sprouted barely, which is moistened and allowed to geminate, a process called malting which converts starches into fermentable sugar called maltose.

Maltose can be fermented producing alcohol as one its byproducts. The same yeast used in fermenting can also be used to make bread. Consuming maltose was one way barley could be consumed without it being hulled, cracked or milled.

It is said the Ancient Egyptians believed that one day Osiris, god of agriculture, made a decoction of barley that had germinated with the sacred waters of the Nile, and then distracted by other urgent affairs, left it out in the sun and forgot it. When he came back the mixture had fermented. He drank it, and thought it so good that he let mankind profit by it. This was said to be the origin of beer.

Websites and Resources on Prehistory: Wikipedia article on Prehistory Wikipedia ; Early Humans elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Prehistoric Art witcombe.sbc.edu/ARTHprehistoric ; Evolution of Modern Humans anthro.palomar.edu ; Iceman Photscan iceman.eurac.edu/ ; Otzi Official Site iceman.it Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica britannica.com/; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication geochembio.com; Food Timeline, History of Food foodtimeline.org ; Food and History teacheroz.com/food ;

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news.

Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Was Agriculture Developed to Produce Alcohol?

Frank Thadeusz wrote in Spiegel Online: “Did our Neolithic ancestors turn to agriculture so that they could be sure of a tipple? US Archaeologist Patrick McGovern thinks so. The expert on identifying traces of alcohol in prehistoric sites reckons the thirst for a brew was enough of an incentive to start growing crops. “It turns out the fall of man probably didn’t begin with an apple. More likely, it was a handful of mushy figs that first led humankind astray. [Source: Spiegel Online, By Frank Thadeusz, December 24, 2009 /~]

“A secure supply of alcohol appears to have been part of the human community’s basic requirements much earlier than was long believed. As early as around 9,000 years ago, long before the invention of the wheel, inhabitants of the Neolithic village Jiahu in China were brewing a type of mead with an alcohol content of 10 percent, McGovern discovered recently. /~\

“Lacking any knowledge of chemistry, prehistoric humans eager for the intoxicating effects of alcohol apparently mixed clumps of rice with saliva in their mouths to break down the starches in the grain and convert them into malt sugar. These pioneering brewers would then spit the chewed up rice into their brew. Husks and yeasty foam floated on top of the liquid, so they used long straws to drink from narrow necked jugs. Alcohol is still consumed this way in some regions of China. [Source: Spiegel Online, By Frank Thadeusz, December 24, 2009 /~]

“McGovern sees this early fermentation process as a clever survival strategy. “Consuming high energy sugar and alcohol was a fabulous solution for surviving in a hostile environment with few natural resources,” he explains. The most recent finds from China are consistent with McGovern’s chain of evidence, which suggests that the craft of making alcohol spread rapidly to various locations around the world during the Neolithic period. Shamans and village alchemists mixed fruit, herbs, spices, and grains together in pots until they formed a drinkable concoction. /~\

“But that wasn’t enough for McGovern. He carried the theory much further, aiming at a complete reinterpretation of humanity’s history. His bold thesis, which he lays out in his book “Uncorking the Past. The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverage,” states that agriculture — and with it the entire Neolithic Revolution, which began about 11,000 years ago — are ultimately results of the irrepressible impulse toward drinking and intoxication.

Neolithic Period: the Right Time to Begin Making Alcohol

Philistine beer jug

According to the University of Pennsylvania’s “Origins and History of Ancient Wine”: “If winemaking is best understood as an intentional human activity rather than a seasonal happenstance, then the Neolithic period (8500-4000 B.C.) is the first time in human prehistory when the necessary preconditions for this momentous innovation came together. Most importantly, Neolithic communities of the ancient Near East and Egypt were permanent, year-round settlements made possible by domesticated plants and animals. With a more secure food supply than nomadic groups and with a more stable base of operations, a Neolithic “cuisine” emerged. [Source: Penn Museum]

Using a variety of food processing techniques—fermentation, soaking, heating, spicing—Neolithic peoples are credited with first producing bread, beer, and an array of meat and grain entrées we continue to enjoy today.

Crafts important in food preparation, storage, and serving advanced in tandem with the new cuisine. Of special significance is the appearance of pottery vessels around 6000 B.C. The plasticity of clay made it an ideal material for forming shapes such as narrow-mouthed vats and storage jars for producing and keeping wine After firing the clay to high temperatures, the resultant pottery is essentially indestructible, and its porous structure helps to absorb organics.

A major step forward in our understanding of Neolithic winemaking came from the analysis of a yellowish residue inside a jar excavated by Mary M. Voigt at the site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northern Zagros Mountains of Iran. The jar, with a volume of about 9 liters (2.5 gallons) was found together with five similar jars embedded in the earthen floor along one wall of a “kitchen” of a Neolithic mudbrick building, dated to ca. 5400-5000 B.C. The structure, consisting of a large living room that may have doubled as a bedroom, the “kitchen,” and two storage rooms, might have accommodated an extended family. That the room in which the jars were found functioned as a kitchen was supported by the finding of numerous pottery vessels, which were probably used to prepare and cook foods, together with a fireplace.

First Beer: from Godin Tepe, Iran

Godin Tepe

The earliest chemically confirmed barley beer to date was discovered at Godin Tepe in the central Zagros Mountains of Iran, where fragments of a jug, from between 5400 and 5000 years ago was found to be coated with beerstone, a by-product of the brewing process. Beer may have been known in Neolithic Europe as far back as 5,000 years ago, and was mainly brewed on a domestic scale. [Source: Wikipedia]

Frank Thadeusz wrote in Spiegel Online: “In Iran of all countries, where alcohol consumption is now punishable by whipping, the American scientist found vessels containing the first evidence of prehistoric beer. At first he puzzled over the purpose of the bulbous vessels with wide openings found in the prehistoric settlement Godin Tepe. Previously known wine vessels all had smaller spouts. McGovern was also perplexed by crisscrossed grooves scratched into the bottoms of the containers. Could it be some kind of mysterious inscription? [Source: Spiegel Online, By Frank Thadeusz, December 24, 2009 /~]

“But back in the laboratory, he isolated calcium oxalate, known to brewers as an unwanted byproduct of beer production. Nowadays, breweries can filter the crystals out of their brew without any difficulty. Their resourceful predecessors, working 3,500 years B.C., scratched grooves into their 50-liter (13-gallon) jugs so that the tiny stones would settle out there. McGovern had discovered humankind’s first beer bottles. /~\

“The ancient farmers in Godin Tepe harvested barley from fields near the village and mashed the crop using basalt stone. Then they brewed the ground grain into a considerable range of varieties, enjoying a sweet, caramel-flavored dark beer, an amber-hued lager-like concoction, and other pleasant-tasting beverages. /~\

“Around the same time, the Sumerians were paying homage to their fertility goddess Nin-Harra, whom they considered to be the inventor of beer. The creators of Mesopotamian civilization scratched instructions for brewing beer onto small clay tablets in Nin-Harra’s honor. The main ingredient in their variety of beer was emmer, a variety of wheat that has since nearly disappeared.” /~\

Home Brewing Ancient Beer

4th millennium BC pottery from Iran

On his effort to produce ancient beer in his kitchen,Ed Hitchcock wrote in BrewingTechniques: “We know barley has been cultivated for at least 9000 years (4). I wondered what a beer of that era would have been like, a beer that is more than twice as old as the recipe reproduced from the Sumarian hymn. I decided to try some simple qualitative experiments in my kitchen. I managed not only to produce a beer that could have been made over 9000 years ago, but also to explore the intimate link between beer and bread. These experiments led me to the conclusion that the argument over the primacy of bread vs. beer is as academic as that of the chicken vs. egg. [Source: Ed Hitchcock, BrewingTechniques’ September/October 1994 \=]

“To set the stage for the origins of beer, consider the other uses of grain. Undoubtedly the first use of grain, before either bread or beer, was to make gruel (2). Bread is effectively a cooked dense gruel and comes in three basic types. Unleavened bread, such as the tortilla, is the simplest form. It requires pulverized grain (flour) and water and is baked on a hot stone. It has a small volume and requires little in terms of ingredients. Leavened bread, with which we are most familiar, requires a large volume of flour, water, a source of sugars, and yeast. A third and less well known, bread is made from sprouted grains. The grains are sprouted, ground to paste, and baked in a loaf. The resultant loaf is very dense, sweet and cakelike, and is in effect a kilned malt. One could argue endlessly on the basis of parsimony, culture, and archaeological evidence over the order of appearance of breads and beer. Whether sprouted bread was a derivative of sprouted gruel or unleavened bread may never be known. What we can be certain of is that people 10,000 years ago experimented with ways to consume grain. Somewhere in these experiments they discovered beer. \=\

“The question of how beer was discovered becomes academic. Beer may have been discovered through stewing sprouted bread, heating sprouted gruel, or unintentionally cooking grains that were stored in a damp place. Fermentation was most likely due to airborne microorganisms but may have been aided by the addition of fruit, raw grains, or other ingredients bearing surface yeast and bacteria. The serendipitous “accident” of making beer probably happened not once, but several times before the right blend of microorganisms produced a palatable beverage. I have no doubt, however, that once a pleasant tasting broth with euphoric effects was produced, word traveled fast.

Ancient Brewing Techniques

woman making beer

Ed Hitchcock wrote in BrewingTechniques: “How was the beer made and what was it like? This question can be broken down into an examination of technology, ingredients, and procedures. The technology at the time of the origin of beer was not well developed but sufficient to make fire, tools of wood and stone, and a container of some sort. These are all it takes to make beer. [Source: Ed Hitchcock, BrewingTechniques’ September/October 1994 \=]

“The main ingredient in beer is malt, which is a sprouted grain. Many grains can be and are used, including millet, corn, rice, wheat, spelt, and barley. We know from archaeological records that barley and wheat have been cultivated for at least 9000 years (4). Barley makes a poor bread because of its low gluten content, so we may safely assume that if people were brewing, they likely used barley and may have used wheat and other grains as well. The malt may have taken any of a number of forms. Dry malt may have been made for storage by either drying the sprouted grains in the sun, or baking sprouted loaves until hard. The very earliest beers may well have been made from raw sprouted grains that had undergone no drying or kilning. \=\

“The process for making the original beers was undoubtedly abbreviated compared with modern beers, which undergo separate mashing, boiling, and fermentation steps. The first beers likely underwent a continuous mash and fermentation. Sprouted grains were ground and mixed with water in a vessel of wood or even in skin bags. This vessel was heated either by fire, by dropping in heated rocks, or by setting it out in the hot sun. Fermenting flora would have been introduced from both the grains and the air. The fermented gruel could then be consumed, or the liquid could be drawn off as beer and the remaining grains and yeast mixed with wheat flour to make a leavened bread. \=\

“The fermentation of ancient beers would have involved many different yeasts and bacteria. The trick would have been to keep the pH down low enough to inhibit noxious bacteria. A “sour mash” process, in which the warm mash is inoculated with Lactobacillus from the grain husks, can grow some truly foul aerobic organisms if exposed to air. Presumably the “sour mash” portion of the fermentation was brief, or some acidity was built up during the sprouting process. \=\

“With the invention of ceramics, the process could be much more refined. The mash could be cooked over a fire, and the liquid could be drawn off and fermented separately. Eventually, techniques would have evolved to preferentially select certain strains of microflora by the addition of fruit, which bear yeast on the surface, or by using a “magic stick” to stir the wort and transmit yeasts between batches.

Ancient Beer, Home Brewed in My Kitchen

Ed Hitchcock wrote in BrewingTechniques:“To experience part of the ancient past, I wanted to reproduce an early beer. I decided to start with beer that could have been made with a mash cooked in clay pots. The idea was to sprout grains of barley and wheat, use some of the sprouted grains to make sprouted loaves, cook up a mash of sprouted grains and sprouted bread, and transfer the liquid and ferment it. To round out the experiment, I decided to collect the yeast sediment and any grains from the bottom of the fermentor and mix these with stone-ground whole wheat flour to make leavened bread.

Ingredients: I picked up the grains from a health food store. In addition to barley, I decided to include wheat and spelt for variety. Unfortunately, the barley was hulled. I knew the hulled barley could lead to problems but decided to take my chances for this first attempt. [Source: Ed Hitchcock, BrewingTechniques’ September/October 1994 \=]

Mesopotamian beer receipt

“To make the malt, I sprouted the grains in mason jars with perforated lids (these can be purchased at a health food store or made at home). I placed 200-250 g of grain in each 1-L jar and filled the jars with cold water, rotating them to ensure even wetting. I left the grains to soak in water for 24 h; I then inverted the jars and left them on a dish rack to drain. I rinsed the grains every 12 h and again left them to drain. After every rinsing I examined the grains for signs of germination. Germination was uneven, so the termination point was somewhat arbitrary; I stopped the sprouting when many of the acrospires had reached grain length and not too many had grown much longer. The wheat and spelt grains were ready in two to three days, whereas the barley took seven or more days to sprout sufficiently. By the time the barley was ready for use, the moist grains emitted a vinegary aroma, perhaps from the activity of bacteria in the grain bed. \=\

“I gave the grains a final rinse, drained them, and dumped those destined to become sprouted bread into a food processor for grinding (I could not find a mortar and pestle large enough). I emptied the resulting thick starchy paste of whole and partial grains onto a flat ceramic baking pan and formed it into “biscuits,” 15-18 cm in diameter and 2-3 cm thick. These biscuits were then baked at various temperatures and times to observe the different results. I opted for flat biscuits rather than domed loaves because the flat shape would dry more thoroughly for better storage; the dome-shaped store-bought sprouted bread must be kept frozen to prevent mold from growing on the moist, sweet loaf. \=\

“I baked the biscuits at 120-175 °F (50-80 °C) for 8-18 h. Those baked at 150 °F (65 °C) for about 10 h seemed to be the most pleasant tasting. Those baked at lower temperatures (120 °F [50 °C]) remained sticky and pasty even after 12 h and required flipping and a further 6 h of baking. Those baked in a stepwise manner (130 °F [55 °C] for 1 h, 150-160 °F [65-70 °C] for 2 h, and 175 °F [80 °C] for 8 h) came out darkened to the color of dark Munich malt or British brown (porter) malt, depending on the original moisture content. The flavor of the wheat and spelt biscuits was better than that of the barley biscuits, though they all tasted of malt.

Mashing and Fermentation of Kitchen-Made Ancient Beer

Ed Hitchcock wrote in BrewingTechniques: “Recipe design: With biscuits and sprouting barleycorns, I set about trying to design a recipe that could be produced by people of 10,000 years ago and that could be reproduced easily and reliably. Ancient cultures undoubtedly experimented until they achieved desirable results. I chose not to reproduce all of these experiments, but rather to shortcut that process by calling on more modern knowledge of brewing science. I had to remind myself, though, that the experiment was to reproduce a fermented beverage of the ancients, and not to brew a competition beer from which I expected perfect extraction or crystal clarity. [Source: Ed Hitchcock, BrewingTechniques’ September/October 1994 \=]

ancient Egyptian beer making

“Mashing: The mashing technique I finally settled on was a sort of decoction. The technique has the advantage of producing the desired temperatures without actually having to measure those temperatures with a thermometer. A half and half mixture of boiling mash and room temperature mash would give a temperature of approximately 140 °F (60 °C). If this resulting mash were slowly heated, it would pass through the starch conversion temperature range, through mash-out temperatures, and on to boiling. The extracted wort would be boiled, cooled slowly, and fermented. \=\

“Fermentation: Fermentation was another dilemma. I was not about to expose this wort to the microorganisms in my kitchen, which have been responsible for more than one spoiled batch of beer. And I did not wish to use commercially available lambic cultures, because I was not producing a lambic-style beer. Some have suggested that ancient beers were fermented with a combination of Saccharomyces and Schizosaccharomyces (5), but I had no local source of the latter. Instead, I recalled a portion of Katz and Maytag’s interpretation of the Hymn to Ninkasi wherein they supposed that fruits, such as grapes (or raisins) or dates, may have been added, not as a flavoring but as a source of wild yeasts which normally live on the skins of these fruits (1). \=\

“I decided against using grapes to supply the yeast because fresh fruit is not readily available in Halifax in late fall. What is available has been shipped long distances and likely contains both pesticides and fruit fly eggs. I could have used a mix of pure wine and beer cultures to simulate wild yeasts, but instead I chose to culture the yeast from a batch of fresh unpasteurized sweet apple cider. This technique provided an inoculation with microorganisms known to produce fermentation without actually controlling the numbers or strains of those organisms. The beer was intended to be consumed young, so I was not overly concerned about spoilage or long-term storage. The recipe and procedure I settled on is shown in the accompanying box. \=\

“For those interested in specific numbers, the original gravity was 1.071 (much of it from dissolved starches). The final gravity was quite high as well – 1.033. As it fermented, the starch in suspension formed a pellicle on top of the kraeusen. As the foam fell, the starchy skin remained; its integrity was such that bubbles would collect underneath it, bursting only when they had grown to several centimeters in width. Much of the brown color of the liquid settled with the yeast as a starchy sediment as fermentation slowed, leaving a surprisingly pale liquor.

Final Products: Beer and Leavened Bread

Ed Hitchcock wrote in BrewingTechniques: “After racking the beer into bottles, I performed the other half of the experiment. I removed a quantity (roughly 500 mL) of the yeast-starch-grain slurry from the bottom of the primary, warmed it slightly to rouse the yeast, and added stone-ground whole wheat flour to make a dough (about 1.5 L [6 cups]). After the dough was thoroughly mixed to a dense elastic texture, I left it to rise for 1 h in a warm place over the oven. I kneaded it, rolled it into a ball, placed it on a ceramic baking pan, and baked it at 350 °F (175 °C) for 55 min. The resulting loaf was dark and heavy and initially had a strong aroma of alcohol. The bread was hearty, though slightly bland from lack of sugar, oil, and salt. It was not unpleasant, and though not the best choice for a peanut butter sandwich, it would make an excellent vehicle for a ripe brie. [Source: Ed Hitchcock, BrewingTechniques’ September/October 1994 \=]

“The beer was more of a surprise. My expectation was of a sour, yeasty, starchy brew, drinkable but not particularly enjoyable. Not so. The beer was quite pale and contained suspended starch, giving it the appearance of a Belgian White beer, though a degree or two darker. The level of carbonation was almost nil, though when poured with vigor a slight sparkling could be produced. Without carbonation it produced no head, so head retention was not an issue. The aroma was bready, yeasty, and cidery, with a hint of wheat. The cidery component was not like that of a beer made with too much sucrose, nor was it the acetaldehyde tang of a certain commercial American pilsner. The perception of yeastiness in the aroma faded after the first few sips. The flavor was soft and had a dry finish. No strong estery or phenolic notes were present, but a slight spiciness was detectable in the background. The high wheat content provided a bready character and may have contributed to the spicy note. The alcohol was noticeable, but not foremost. Despite the high original gravity, the beer was remarkably clean tasting. One taster compared it to Jade, a pale Flanders-style ale from the north of France, though I have never sampled this particular beer. It was good enough to warrant a second glass. \=\

“From this simple experiment we get a glimpse into the origins of beer and leavened bread. What was wholly unexpected in my results was that ancient beers may have been quite good, even by modern standards. The vagaries of wild fermentation would have precluded any form of quality control, and yet spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts likely produced a pleasant end product often enough to keep the ancient brewers at their craft. \=\

Recipe for Ancient Beer

Mesopotamian beer allocation record

Ed Hitchcocks’s Recipe for an Ancient Beer:
In one pot mix:
500 g (dry weight) pulverized sprouted barley gruel
1 biscuit (~200 g dry weight) sprouted wheat or spelt bread
2 L of the last barley rinse water
200 g cracked winter wheat
In a second pot, mix:
2 biscuits (~250 g dry weight) sprouted barley bread
100 g unsprouted barley, crushed
200 g unsprouted spelt, crushed
2.5 L cold water [Source: Ed Hitchcock, BrewingTechniques’ September/October 1994 \=]

Ed Hitchcock wrote in BrewingTechniques:“Thoroughly break up the biscuits and allow them to soak. While the first pot soaks at room temperature, slowly heat the second pot to boiling. Once it has reached boiling, mix the contents of the two pots, and slowly bring the temperature back to boiling. With a wooden spoon, push the mash to one side of the pot and collect the liquid (plus any grain that happens to be floating around) with a cup and transfer it to another pot. Add 1 L of boiling water to the mash, stir, and repeat the pressing procedure. Repeat this until you have collected several liters of brown, gravy-like liquid, along with some grains. Bring the wort to a boil to sterilize it, cool, and pitch with your favorite wild yeast. I confess that in the mash I did resort to a small addition of commercial malted barley to compensate for the lack of husks on the barley I had used.” \=\

Beer Ingredients and the Collapse of Ancient Civilizations

John Roach of NBC News wrote: “Beer, scientists have long argued, helped give rise to civilization in an arc of land that sweeps from modern-day Egypt to the border between Iraq and Iran. Today, chemical analysis of barley grains, one of beer’s key ingredients, is bolstering research into climate change’s role in the collapse of ancient societies. “There has been a longtime debate about the relationship between climate and its changes and the development and in some cases demise of cultures,” Frank Hole, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and a study co-author, explained to NBC News. “The research that we did is attempting to pinpoint this more directly.” [Source: John Roach, NBC News, August 11, 2014]

Phoenician beer jugs

“To do this, he and colleagues collected samples of modern and ancient barley grains throughout the Near East and analyzed them to tease out the impact on agriculture of so-called mega-droughts over the past 10,000 years. The existence of these droughts has been inferred from sources such as pollen and microscopic animals in cores of soil pulled from lake and ocean bottoms. “What’s new in this paper is that barley grains excavated at archaeological sites across the Near East also reveal the same abrupt climate changes,” Harvey Weiss, who studies Near Eastern archaeology and the environment at Yale University, told NBC News. He was not part of the new research, which he added “shows that even with human cultivation practices, these drought periods are well marked.” The evidence stems from the way carbon isotopes in barley vary with water availability. “Together with other archaeological information they can provide a clearer picture on the fate of ancient societies,” study leader Simone Riehl, an archaeologist based at the University of Tübingen in Germany, told NBC News in an email.

“The barley analysis indicates that drought stress was indeed an issue for these ancient societies, “but its regional impact was diverse and influenced by geographic factors,” Riehl, Hole, and colleagues write in a paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For example, coastal farmers were largely unaffected by the droughts and grew copious amounts of barley for beer, bread, and other staples. Further inland, societies were forced to adapt when rains failed to materialize. Some developed irrigation systems. Others switched to more drought tolerant crops. “Sometimes they adapted by getting out and moving someplace else,” Hole said.

Evidence of Earliest European Beer and Neolithic Death Ritual Found in Spanish Cave

Spanish excavations in Can Sadurní cave (Begues, Barcelona) discovered four relatively well-preserved human skeletons dated to about 6,400 years ago along with evidence for the earliest European beer, which may have been included as part of the death ritual. The Excavations at Can Sadurní are carried out by Collectiu per la Investigació de la Prehistòria i l’Arqueologia del Garraf-Ordal (CIPAG), together with the Seminar of Studies and Prehistoric Research (SERP) of the University of Barcelona. [Source: University of Barcelona, November 23, 2013]

cuneiform tablet of beer rations

According to the University of Barcelona: “A small landslip from the outer part of the cave must have taken place when the bodies had been newly interred, or at least when they had just began the decomposition process, as it has protected them in the position in which they had originally been placed. The group of four consists of a 50-year-old adult male, a sub-adult, and two children aged 3-4 and 5-6 years old. The adult male was accompanied by various burial goods including a two handled drinking vessel and joints of meat from two goats and a calf. Under the left arm, near the elbow, a polished bone pendant was found. The bodies lay in a line and were curled up in tight foetal positions resting on their right side with their backs to the north wall of the cave. The rather extreme foetal position indicates that they may have been tied and wrapped in some kind of shroud.

“The four individuals were not buried, but were placed around the north wall of the cave with a one metre gap between each of them. Nearby, evidence of a fire, possibly lit as part of the burial ritual was also found. It is estimated that similar burial rituals were performed over the space of more than two-hundred years at this site. Sediment had accumulated over the corpses and later, more bodies were placed over the top. After this a stronger landslip took place spreading the remains of the last bodies placed there.

“In 1999, researchers found a shard of a cup like container in which oxalate and barley-corn phytoliths were identified. This was determined to be the earliest scientific evidence of fermented beer ever found in Europe.”

3,500-Year-Old “Microbrewery” Found in Cyprus

One of the world’s oldest “microbreweries” was found in Cyprus by University of Manchester archaeologists. According to the University of Manchester: “The team who excavated the two by two metre domed mud-plaster structure, led by Dr Lindy Crewe, have demonstrated it was used as a kiln to dry malt to make beer. According to Dr Crewe, beers of different flavours would have been brewed from malted barley and fermented with yeasts with an alcoholic content of around 5 percent. The yeast would have either been wild or produced from fruit such as grape or fig. [Source: University of Manchester, November 29, 2012]

“She said: “Archaeologists believe beer drinking was an important part of society from the Neolithic onwards and may have even been the main reason that people began to cultivate grain in the first place. But it’s extremely rare to find the remains of production preserved from thousands of years ago so we’re very excited. The excavation of the malting kiln with associated sets of pottery types and tools left in place gives us a fantastic opportunity to look at Bronze Age toolkits and figure out techniques and recipes.”

“The oven discovered by the archaeologists was positioned at one end of a 50 metre square courtyard with a plastered floor. They found grinding tools and mortars which may have been used to break down the grain after it was malted, a small hearth and cooking pots made of clay to cook the beer gently. They also found juglets, which they believe probably contained yeast additives or sweeteners to produce beers of different strengths or flavours. The beers’ ingredients were found by the team as carbonised seeds.

“She added: “Beer was commonly drunk because it is more nutritious than bread and less likely to contain harmful pathogens than drinking water which can make you ill. But alcoholic beverages were also used to oil the wheels of business and pleasure in much the same way as today: work brought communities together for tasks such as bringing in the harvest or erecting special buildings. Instead of payment, participants are rewarded with a special feast, often involving quantities of alcohol, which also transformed the work from a chore into a social event. The people of the Bronze Age, it seems, were well aware of the relaxing properties of alcohol.”

“An experimental archaeology team, led by Ian Hill of HARP Archaeology, recreated the drying kiln using traditional techniques, to test Dr Crewe’s theory. The modern version used hot air to produce a temperature of 65° C – perfect conditions for heating and drying grains but still preserving it’s enzymes and proteins. He said: “After the beers had been strained, we felt they were all pretty drinkable, though some varieties were better than others. The grape was less pleasant – a bit too sweet– the outcomes are less reliable when using wild yeasts, compared to brewers yeast, but the fig beer was definitely the most popular.”“

Were There 4,500 Breweries in Ireland 3,500 Years Ago?

According to the Sydney Morning Herald: Ireland is dotted with “fulacht fiadhs” (pits surrounded by horseshoe-shaped mounds) that date from 1500 B.C. - 2500 B.C. At first it was thought that the pits were used for boiling mutton, but the absence of animal bones surrounding the holes has raised doubts about that idea. Inspired by a hangover and the hypothesis that man is a continuous quest to later his consciousness, Declan Moore and Billy Quinn, archaeological consultants with the Moore Group based in County Galway, proposed the theory that the fulacht fiadhs were used to brew beer. [Source: Miriam Wolf, Chow.com, August 17, 2007]

ancient Egyptian brewery and bakery

Tom Peterkin wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “The research focuses on the 4500 fulacht fiadhs (pits or recesses), which date from 1500 BC and are dotted across the island. The purpose of the horseshoe-shaped mounds surrounding an indentation has been a mystery since they were first identified in the 17th century. In the 1950s it was proposed that they were filled with water, which was brought to the boil by adding heated stones and used to cook mutton. But a lack of animal bones around the sites led to Declan Moore and his colleague, Billy Quinn, suggesting an alternative use. [Source: Tom Peterkin, Sydney Morning Herald, August 15, 2007 ]

The Moore Group's deductions suggest beer was widely drunk in Ireland long before the 6th century AD, when brewing is first documented. Early writings show that the brewer was a highly important member of the monastic communities in the early Christian era. Studies of residues found at prehistoric sites in Asia have dated beer back to 5000 BC. But the Moore Group claims the proliferation of fulacht fiadhs in Ireland suggests ancient brewing on an unprecedented scale. "It means that there were up to 4500 breweries in Ireland in the Bronze Age, which means it was the most widespread brewing industry in prehistory in the world," Mr Moore said.

“The research by the Moore Group has culminated with the archaeologists recreating Bronze Age brewing methods and producing a modern version of the ale...The verdict? The cloudy, yellowish brew with no discernible head was dangerously drinkable. The brewers were unsure of its strength but there was enough bite to suggest that a Bronze Age binge would be quite an event.”

The BBC reported on Moore’s and Quinn’s efforts to recreate a prehistoric pint by heating up the mash with hot stores in wooden troughs. The first batch was mild and drinkable: ‘It tasted really good,’ said Mr Quinn, ‘We were very surprised. Even a professional brewer we had working with us compared it favourably to his own.’ ‘It tasted like a traditional ale, but was sweeter because there were no hops in it.’ Unfortunately, like many other homebrewers, they found it hard to replicate their results. “The second [batch] was stronger and the third was ‘a disaster’—but they have started work on batch number four which the hope will taste as good as their first.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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