The Archaeology of Beer

Detail of the possible drinking horn, with a series of 13 lines carved on it often interpreted as referencing the lunar cycle.

Which came first; the pub or the quiz? When it comes to archaeological conundrums, there can be few tougher (bar) nuts to crack than figuring out the origin of beer.

Anyone who has spent time on an excavation knows that archaeology and beer go hand in hand. It’s not just a cordial way for new-found dig buddies to wind down after a hard day’s work; archaeological problems can be calibrated according to how many pints must be drunk in order to solve them. A ‘one-pinter’ is easily figured out between rounds; a ‘five-pinter’ has few heads nodding in agreement – even after last orders. After the fifth pint, all logic breaks down.

The Primordial Soup, ABV 4.3%

When it comes to five-pinter’s, there can be few tougher (bar) nuts to crack than figuring out the origin of beer. The Guinness Book of Records was originally created to settle such bar-room conundrums, as the brewery sought to settle arguments between patrons by providing a definitive, pre-internet reference manual for the biggest, the fastest, the smallest… but what about the first? Though there’s no mention of the first, record breaking beer – a recent Guinness advert playing on the brewery’s marketing strategy (the best things come to those who wait) hazards a guess at the answer. It featured three men in a pub taking a satisfying sip of Guinness, before stepping backwards in time, devolving through each evolutionary stage to become three bug-eyed amphibians – distant ancestors of our three drinkers – sipping from a fetid pool. The advertisers would have us believe that our pint was well worth the wait, but how long exactly have we been waiting? What can archaeology tell us about the invention of beer – or, which came first: the pub or the quiz?

Cosmic Hiccups

Astronomers probing our galaxy have found that alcohol does not just exist on Earth. A gigantic cloud of ethanol (Sagittarius B2N) has been detected near the centre of the Milky Way some 26,000 light years away. It should come as no surprise, then, that sugar fermentation (glycolysis) was the earliest form of energy production used by life on Earth. Four billion years ago, single-celled microbes dined on simple sugars, excreting a mix of ethanol and carbon dioxide: from the very beginning, carbonated alcoholic drinks were available on Earth.

The Drunken Monkey Hypothesis

It took slightly longer for complex organisms to make their way to the bar, but once they had discovered the pungent, enticing aroma of fermenting sugars turned to alcohol by wild strains of yeast, there was no turning back. The ‘drunken monkey’ hypothesis was proposed by the biologist Robert Dudley whilst observing Malaysian tree shrews’ penchant for binging on fermented palm nectar. Early hominids would have been primarily fruit eaters, and it is entirely possible that we evolved both a taste for alcohol, and livers capable of detoxifying after overindulgence.

The Palaeolithic Hypothesis

Without direct physical evidence, it is difficult to date the first intelligent production of alcohol beyond the first pottery vessels of the Neolithic, but an enigmatic carving of a woman holding a ‘drinking horn’ dating back 22,000 years led Archaeo-chemist Patrick McGovern to develop ‘The Palaeolithic Hypothesis.’ Gathering ripe grapes in leather or wooden containers, hunter-gatherers would have noticed the natural fermentation of the juices left in the bottom. Recognising that this process could be speeded up by manually crushing the grapes, and that the taste of aromatic liquid improved once left to settle, it is no great leap to see our early ancestors developing a thirst for the good stuff.

The Venus of Laussel, originally carved beneath a rock shelter in the Dordogne dating to approximately 22,000 years ago, holding a Bison horn in her left hand.

Cleaning up after the (Prehistoric) Party

Archaeologists can only hope that when the prehistoric party was over, someone broke a few pots. Pottery made it possible to ferment, store and serve alcoholic drinks, and most importantly, its porous fabric soaked up the residues of the liquids once held inside. Interestingly, the earliest evidence for brewing is found in the same region as the earliest evidence for pottery. The first clear evidence for alcohol dates back 9,000 years and has been recovered in China by archaeologists using chromatography-mass spectrometry to find tell-tale signatures for rice wine on fragments of Neolithic pottery. Patrick McGovern (who’s job title reads ’Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages’) analysed samples from early Neolithic pottery found in northern China along the banks of the Yellow River, and discovered residues of an alcoholic drink made from rice, grapes and honey dating to 9,000 years ago.

It’s Ritu-Ale

Beer after wine, you’ll feel fine; wine before beer, sick for a year… or possibly 2000 years, until Neolithic farmers in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East began to develop a monoculture based on barley. Alcoholic residues have been discovered from pottery at Godin Tepe in the central Zagros Mountains of Iran dating to between 5,400 and 5,000 years ago. Beer is more nutritious than bread, containing more vitamins and essential amino acids; some have even questioned whether beer, rather than bread, was the driving force of civilization. Residues show, however, that mixed fermented honey mead was the most likely drink of choice for most, but as Neolithic culture expanded westwards, coming into contact with native traditions and experience, brewers began to specialize with different ingredients and techniques, and beer as we know it was invented.

So, that solves that one. If anyone has any more five-pinter’s, please find all answers in the ‘It’s Ritu-Ale Book of Records’, coming to a pub quiz near you soon. Now, I think it’s my shout. What’ll you have?

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Brendon Wilkins

Written by Brendon Wilkins

Co-founder and Projects Director at DigVentures, Brendon heads up our field and post-ex team. Aside from field archaeology, his specialisms are cheese, tea and writing animatedly about himself in the third person.

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