Prehistoric humans had a thirst for craft beer and were brewing such beverages at least 5,000 years earlier than thought, say scientists who have found evidence of alcohol production in the Eastern Mediterranean. Archeologists from the Stanford University in the US and University of Haifa in Israel analysed three stone mortars from a 13,000-year old Natufian burial cave site in Israel.
Their analysis confirmed that these mortars were used for brewing of wheat/barley, as well as for food storage.
The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, suggests that beer brewing practices existed in the Eastern Mediterranean over five millennia before the earliest known evidence, discovered in northern China.
“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.
The earliest archaeological evidence for cereal-based beer brewing even before the advent of agriculture comes from the Natufians, semi-sedentary, foraging people, living in the Eastern Mediterranean between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods, following the last Ice Age.
The Natufians at Raqefet Cave collected locally available plants, stored malted seeds, and made beer as a part of their rituals.
“The Natufian remains in Raqefet Cave never stop surprising us,” said Dani Nadel, from the University of Haifa, who was also an excavator of the site.
“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.
“Some of the skeletons are well-preserved and provided direct dates and even human DNA, and we have evidence for flower burials and wakes by the graves,” he said.
“And now, with the production of beer, the Raqefet Cave remains provide a very vivid and colourful picture of Natufian lifeways, their technological capabilities and inventions,” he said.
The Natufians exploited at least seven plant types associated with the mortars, including wheat or barley, oat, legumes and bast fibres, researchers said.
They packed plant-foods in fibre-made containers and stored them in boulder mortars. They used bedrock mortars for pounding and cooking plant-foods, and for brewing wheat/barley-based beer, likely served in ritual feasts 13,000 years ago.
The evidence of beer brewing at Raqefet Cave 13,000 years ago provides yet another example of the complex Natufian social and ritual realms.
Beer brewing may have been, at least in part, an underlying motivation to cultivate cereals in the southern Levant, supporting the beer hypothesis proposed by archaeologists more than 60 years ago.