Lion-shaped rhyton
Evidence of winemaking from forth millennium B.C. (the late Uruk period) has been found in the city-states of Uruk and Tello in southern Iraq and the Elamite capital of Susa in Iran. The Babylonian and Egyptian found that if they crushed grapes or warmed and moisten grain, the covered mush would bubble and produce drink with a kick. Ancient beer was thick and nutritious. The fermentation process added essential B vitamins and amino acids converted from yeast.╒

Mesopotamians drank beer and wine but seemed to have preferred beer. By some estimates forty percent of the wheat from Sumerian harvest went to make beer. Thus lends credence to the beer theory, that man switched to agriculture so that people could to settle down and grow grain so they sit around and drink beer together on small villages.

It has been argued that beer was preferred over wine because beer-producing barley grows better in the hot, dry climate of southern Iraq than wine-producing grapes. Cylinder seals from the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.) show monarchs and the courtiers drinking beer from large jars with straws. Another beverage, possibly wine, was consumed from hand-held cups and goblets.

Cuneiform tablets show allocations of beer and wine for royal occasions. One tablet from northeastern Syria allocates 80 liters of the "best quality beer" to honor "the man from Babylon." By 700 B.C., the Phrgyians in present-day Turkey were drinking a alcoholic beverage made from wine, barley beer and honey mead.

For hangovers the Assyrians consumed a mixture of ground bird’s beaks and myrrh. [Source: Time magazine]

Akkadian man with a cup, around 2200 BC

Book: “The Oldest Cuisine in the World” by French historian Jean Bottéro was published in French in 2002, in English in 2004 and as a paperback in 2011; “The Silk Road Gourmet, Vol. 1, Western and Southern Asia” by Laura Kelley Websites: Laura Kelley, Saudi Aramco World in 2012, (http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201206/new.flavors.for.the.oldest.recipes.htm); Ancient Food ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Silk Road Gourmet website silkroadgourmet.com/tag/mesopotamia ; Near Eastern Scholars such as Jean Bottéro , Jack Sasson and Piotr Steinkeller are knowledgeable about Mesopotamian food.

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

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, an 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

Beer in Mesopotamia

Kassite god pouring life-giving water

Beer not only existed at the time of the Sumerians it was widely consumed and an important part of Sumerian culture. Scholars have said that beer was the most popular beverage in Mesopotamia because it was “safer” and “maybe tastier than water.” The Sumerian word for beer appears over and over in cuneiform tablets, in many contexts relating to religion, medicine and myth. The oldest evidence of beer comes from a 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet show people drinking a beverage through reed straws from a communal bowl. The oldest known beer recipe is in a 3,900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing, fertility and the harvest. The poem describes how bappir (Sumerian bread) is mixed with “aromatics” in a big vat to generate fermentation. [Source: Mark Miller, ancient-origins.net, February 1, 2015]

Mark Miller wrote in ancient-origins.net, “The production of beer in Mesopotamia is a controversial topic in archaeological circles. Some believe that beer was discovered by accident and that a piece of bread or grain could have become wet and a short time later, it began to ferment into an inebriating pulp. However, others believe that the technique of brewing beer was an early technological achievement and may have even predated the Sumerians in the lowlands of the Mesopotamian alluvial plane.” [Ibid]

See First Beer, Bronze Age

Hymn to Ninkasi, with a Recipe for Making Beer

The Hymn to Ninkasi, inscribed on a nineteenth-century B.C. tablet, contains a recipe for Sumerian beer. It goes:
Borne of the flowing water (...)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water (...)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,

tablet for beer, oil and bread, 2100 BC

She finished its great walls for you Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake,
Ninkasi, Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
You are the one who handles the dough,
[and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, You are the one who handles
the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

You are the one who bakes the bappir
in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes
the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
You are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates.

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks
the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
You are the one who spreads the cooked
mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads
the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.

Alulu beer receipt

You are the one who holds with both hands
the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey and wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (...)
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
The filtering vat, which makes
a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat,
which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer
of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of
Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the
filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of
Tigris and Euphrates.
[Source: Translation by Miguel Civil, J.A. Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson, and G. Zlyomi 1998, 1999, 2000, Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University, Babylonia Index, piney.com]

Mesopotamian Workers Paid in Beer, a 5,000-Year-Old Tablet Shows

A tablet from Uruk in possession of the British Museum, dated around 3100 to 3000 B.C., shows. That Mesopotamian workers were paid in beer. According to the New Scientist the tablet is the world’s oldest paycheck. “On one tablet excavated from (Uruk) we can see a human head eating from a bowl, meaning ‘ration,’ and a conical vessel, meaning ‘beer,’” Alison George wrote in New Scientist. “Scattered around are scratches recording the amount of beer for a particular worker.” [Source: By Michael Shulman, Insight, June 28, 2016]

Mesopotamia is not the only place in ancient history where workers receiving beer for performing work. In ancient Egypt, construction workers received a “daily ration of four to five liters” of the golden liquid. There are also records of poet and the “Father of English literature” Geoffrey Chaucher receiving a yearly salary of 252 gallons of wine from Richard II.

Replicating Mesopotamian Beer

Great Lakes Brewery in Ohio has worked with archaeologists in Chicago to replicate Sumerian beer, using an ancient recipe. Miller wrote: “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. Current results have yielded a beer full of bacteria, warm and slightly sour.”

San-Francisco-based Anchor Brewing Company has produced a reproduction of ancient Sumarian beer called Ninkasi after the Sumarian goddess of beer, based the hymn “Hymn to Ninkasi” narrated above. Dr. Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania and Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing worked to decipher the brewing clues contained within the hymn to make the beverage

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. \=\

King Ashurbanipal and his queen enjoying a cup of wine in the garden. 7th century BC


On the use of marijuana by the Sumerians, John Alan Halloran wrote in sumerian.org: cuneiform tablets include the word — “u2 a-zal-la2 — a medicinal plant, probably distilled into a narcotic (described as "a plant for forgetting worries"); cannabis sativa, hashish ('liquid' + 'to have time elapse' + nominative). From a period 2000 years later, we know the Akkadian word shim qunnabu. There are many references in Google to qunnabu. The best reference in Google for a-zal-la is at ukcia.org/research/abel [Source: John Alan Halloran, sumerian.org]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, 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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