Drink to old times

Archaeologists excavating at the Raqefet Cave where evidence of the oldest beer in the world was discovered August 2018. Image Dani Nadel University of Haifa

Both the ancient Chinese and Natufian beers looked and tasted radically different from the modern variety.

Besides their lab tests, the researchers also found evidence of grain seeds being pounded and crushed on stone mortars recovered from the site, which also backs up the hypothesis that beer was being brewed here.

Researchers say they have found the world's oldest brewery, with residue of 13,000-year-old beer, in a prehistoric cave near Haifa in Israel.

The Natufians were hunter-gatherers who lived in the eastern Mediterranean region 15,000 to 11,500 years ago, and began settling down rather than roving from place to place.

The evidence of beer brewing at Raqefet Cave 13,000 years ago provides yet another example of the complex Natufian social and ritual realms.

Scientists believe that the Natufians used a three-stage brewing process.

This happens by germinating the grains in water to then be drained, dried and stored. In the second step, the malt would be mashed and heated. Finally, the mush was fermented with yeast and allowed to sit for one or more days.

"If we're right, this is the earliest testament in the world to alcohol production of any kind", one of the archaeologists, Dani Nadel from the University of Haifa in Israel, told AFP. They buried some of their dead on a platform of flowers and plants, and apparently also produced a soup-like liquid, an alcoholic drink'.

"We exposed a Natufian burial area with about 30 individuals; a wealth of small finds such as flint tools, animal bones and ground stone implements, and about 100 stone mortars and cupmarks", said Nadel.

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According to Dr Nadel, the liquid was "different than today's beer" and probably much weaker, "but fermented".

The mortars were some 40-60 centimetres (one-two foot) deep.

"Alcohol making and food storage were among the major technological innovations that eventually led to the development of civilisations in the world, and archaeological science is a powerful means to help reveal their origins and decode their contents", said Li Liu, from Stanford University.

And given the close connection between culture, celebration, and a shared fondness for alcohol, every discovery like this tells us a little bit more about the beer drinkers as well as the beer itself.

It was most likely a multi-ingredient concoction like porridge or thin gruel, said Jiajing Wang, a doctoral student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and a co-author on the paper. Beer-making is typically associated with later agricultural societies; previously, the earliest known evidence came from northern China, some 5,000 years after the Natufians were brewing up beverages at Raqefet Cave. The beer residues from Raqefet may in fact predate remains of bread found in northeastern Jordan, which was baked by the Natufians between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago.

Ms Liu said they were looking for clues into what plant foods the Natufian people - who lived between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods - were eating, and during the search they discovered the traces of a wheat-and-barley-based alcohol.

Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave (left) are compared to starches replicated in the lab. Credit: Courtesy Li Liu.

The efforts put into producing the alcoholic beverage showed the importance of the drink in the Natufian culture, he noted.

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