New roadworks between Cambridge and Huntingdon in the UK have thrown up evidence of Britain’s oldest beer. Dating from about 400 BC, this Iron Age brew has kindled speculation among archaeologists in the world’s only nation to value warm beer. Was it a way to secure a clean source of hydration? Or was it used ceremonially? The former is unconvincing, since the region has lots of fresh water. And the latter proceeds from the modern, secular human’s ridiculous need to posit ritual as the explanation for all primordial human activity. Incisive application of Occam’s Razor would suggest that people in Iron Age Cambridgeshire drank beer because it made them feel good. A religious justification is unnecessary.
But a 400 BC beer is actually a very young vintage because last year, a brew from 13,000 years ago was discovered in a cave near Haifa. Attributed to a semi-nomadic group of the Natufian culture, it turned traditional thinking about the remote past on its head. Utilitarian archaeologists had always assumed that grains were first bred for making bread, and that alcohol was a byproduct. The Natufian find predated evidence for the common use of bread, causing many to wonder if the agricultural revolution, the foundation of modern human civilisation, was driven by thirst rather than hunger. Indeed, would hunter-gatherers turn peasants and trade their personal freedom for backbreaking agricultural work if they weren’t assured of a pint in the evening to drown their sorrows in?
However, ancient beer wasn’t exactly craft quality. The Natufian brew, for instance, was more like porridge than Stella or Guinness. A mere food, rather than a beverage that refreshes parts that others fail to reach. And now, we learn that the Cambridge brew was made without hops, which were not used until the 15th century. It is dispiriting news.