The oldest beer brewers in the world were the Natufians, a group of hunter-gatherers who made the alcohol more than 10,000 years ago, according to a new study. Researchers found evidence of beer brewing in a cave in what is now Israel.
Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford, and her team examined 13,000-year-old stone mortars from the Raqefet Cave, a Natufian graveyard site near Haifa. The researchers unexpectedly found materials related to brewing beer.
“This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world,” Liu said in a press release.
It’s believed the Natufians drank beer for ritual feasts in respect for the dead—not just to get rid of grains that weren’t used for bread.
“This discovery indicates that making alcohol was not necessarily a result of agricultural surplus production, but it was developed for ritual purposes and spiritual needs, at least to some extent, prior to agriculture,” Liu explained.
The discovery was a surprise.
“We did not set out to find alcohol in the stone mortars, but just wanted to investigate what plant foods people may have consumed because very little data was available in the archaeological record,” said Liu
The beer is far from what you drink in the 21st century. Study co-author Dani Nadel, an archaeology professor at the University of Haifa, explained that the Natufians buried their dead on a platform with flowers and plants but also made a “soup-like liquid, an alcoholic drink,” reports The State.
Study co-author and doctoral student Jiajing Wang described the beer as a multi-ingredient thin gruel or porridge. It also wasn’t as strong as today’s brews.
“The Raqefet Cave beer was likely very low in alcoholic content,” the researchers noted.
The Natufians spent a good amount of time on the brewing process, which is notable and shows the “important ritual function played by alcoholic beverages in the Natufian culture.”
The process took three steps—malting, mashing, and fermenting—and involved several types of plants, including legumes, oat, wheat or barley, and flax.
“Beer making was an integral part of rituals and feasting, a social regulatory mechanism in hierarchical societies,” Wang said about their findings.
Interestingly, beer may have been created before bread. The study notes that the earliest bread remains were found in east Jordan and are estimated to be 11,600 to 14,600 years old. The beer findings from this study indicate it could be from 11,700 to 13,700 years old.
The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports.