If you think your ale tastes a bit musty, that’s nothing – evidence of the world’s oldest beer has been found in 9,000-year-old Chinese pots.
The drinking vessels were found next to corpses in Qiaotou, southern China, and are said to have been buried as part of a ritual.
The vessels are older than the oldest known evidence, recipes on 7,000 year old Egyptian papyrus rolls.
And researchers believe the drinking vessels are also one of the earliest painted pottery to be discovered.
The chemical analysis of the smaller drinking cup showed traces of beer fermentation, which were found neither in the surrounding soil nor anywhere else than in ceramic containing alcohol.
Researchers at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, USA, believe that the age-old drinking of beer was part of a funeral ritual in honor of the dead.
The old pots were discovered in a three meter high platform mound, which was surrounded by an artificial moat during the ongoing excavations in Qiaotou.
The mound contained two human skeletons and several pottery pits filled with high quality ceramics, many of which were complete vessels.
The ceramic was painted with white slip and some of the vessels were decorated with abstract designs.
Jiajing Wang, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth and co-author of the study published in PLoS ONE, said, “These artifacts are probably some of the earliest painted ceramics known in the world.
“No pottery of this type has been found in any other site from this period.”
Some of the ceramic vessels were relatively small and similar in size to the drinking vessels used today and those found in other parts of the world.
Each of the pots could basically be held in one hand like a cup, unlike storage jars which are much larger.
Seven of the 20 vessels that were part of their analysis appeared to be long-necked Hu pots that were used for drinking alcohol in later historical times.
The team analyzed microfossil debris, starch, phytolite (fossilized plant debris) and fungi extracted from the inner surfaces of the pots.
The residues were compared with control samples taken from the soil surrounding the vessels.
The team identified microbial (starch granules and phytolites) and microbial (mold and yeast) residues in the pots that matched residues from beer fermentation.
Sweet and cloudy
Prof. Wang said, “However, this old beer would not have been like the IPA we have today.
Instead, it was likely a slightly fermented and sweet drink that was likely cloudy in color.
“Our results showed that the pottery vessels were used to hold beer in the most general sense, a fermented drink made from rice (Oryza sp.), A grain called Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and unidentified tubers.
“The results also showed that the residues from the pots also contained phytolites from rice hulls and other plants. They could have been added to the beer as a fermentation agent.”
At the time, most of the communities were hunter-gatherers who relied primarily on foraging for food. Since rice harvesting and processing was labor intensive, the beer in Qiaotou was likely a ritually significant drink.
The residue analysis of the pots also showed traces of mold used in beer production.
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Prof. Wang added, “We don’t know how humans made the mold 9,000 years ago because fermentation can happen naturally.
“If people had rice left over and the kernels became moldy, they might have noticed that the kernels became sweeter and more alcoholic as they got older.
“Although people may not have known the biochemistry associated with moldy grains, they likely observed the fermentation process and used it through trial and error.”
Given that the Qiaotou pottery was found near the burials in a non-residential area, the researchers conclude that the beer mugs were likely used in ritual ceremonies related to the burial of the dead.
They speculate that ritualized drinking may have been an integral part of building social relationships and cooperation that served as the precursors to the complex rice-growing societies that emerged 4,000 years later.
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