An archaeological find in China may be the first evidence that beer was an important product in China many years before the experts originally thought. It may have even inspired the development of a sophisticated society.
Archaeologists from Stanford University unearthed what they think is an ancient brewery at the Mijiaya site in China’s Shaanxi province. Their findings were published in the latest edition of PNAS.
The team found two subterranean pits with beer-making equipment that included funnels, pots and amphorae holding the residue of what probably was 5,000-year-old beer.
“The shapes and styles of the vessels show stylistic similarities to the brewing equipment in the historical period and modern ethnographic records,” said study co-author Jiajing Wing.
The archaeologists believe the pits would have acted like an ancient cooler, helping in the beer-making process and with storage.
A pottery stove found in each pit may have been used to keep the ingredients at the optimal temperature for mashing, a technique similar to what you would see in beer-making today.
Tests of the yellow residue show the presence of barley, broomcorn millet, tubers and Job’s tears (also known as Chinese pearl barley or coix seed), which were fermented together to make what probably would have been a sweet and sour kind of brew.
“This beer recipe indicates a mix of Chinese and Western traditions: barley from the West, millet, Job’s tears, tubers from China,” Wang said.
The experts suggest, though, that you shouldn’t run right out to try that recipe in your home operation, as the ancients may have included other ingredients in their concoctions that were lost to time.
Barley was the big surprise, as it has never been detected in archaeological materials from China that were this old.
The authors argue that barley was probably introduced into the area for beer making. They don’t believe people were using it for food until much later, although more research is needed to prove that theory.
Earlier research has shown that beer has long been a part of Chinese culture. It gets a mention in the written record in the late Shang dynasty (circa 1250-1046 B.C.).
A short, intoxicating history of beer
Ancient humans’ love of beer has also been known for decades. Some archaeologists argue that it was that love, and not an interest in breakfast or bread, that led to the domestication of cereals around 9500-8000 B.C. Up to 40 percent of the annual cereal crop in Mesopotamia may have gone to the production of beer.
Archaeologists have found evidence of 11,000-year-old brewing troughs at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey.
Beer was also the national drink in Mesopotamia and Egypt, according to research from Xavier University theologist Michael Homan. You could get paid in beer or pay for your bride with it. It was used as medicine and as a cosmetic.
There are ancient gods dedicated to beer, like the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, who has her own drinking hymn. Temples kept their own brewers on the payroll.
Even the modern God (i.e. Yahweh), was believed to have a sizable drinking habit. The ancients were encouraged to offer it as a daily libation as is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 28: 7-10.
The benefits of beer
Beer in the ancient world was used much like it is now, as a kind of social lubricant. (“Hey, handsome ancient Sumarian stonecutter, let me buy you a beer. You come here often?”). Beer has also been found in paintings at ancient brothels.
But it also served in a more important everyday role: Beer was a much safer alternative to drinking water in the pre-Brita-filter era. The alcohol killed many of the microorganisms you’d find in your local watering hole.
In this study, the authors suggest that beer drinking, often a habit we associate more with frat parties than with sophisticated fêtes, may have actually spawned a social complexity not seen in Chinese culture previously.
Public buildings from that time period suggest a kind of hierarchy in the culture. It may have had an elite class that engaged in a kind of competitive feasting and drinking.
Beer, the researchers argue, “may have contributed to the emergence of hierarchical societies.” In other words, it may have been one of the driving forces behind the development of sophisticated cultures in an area known as the cradle of Chinese civilization.
The development of beer bellies, however, is probably a more modern phenomenon.