Ancient beer was brewed from rice 9,000 years ago
Archaeologists have discovered one of the oldest examples of alcohol being consumed. A set of ancient pots dating back around 9,000 years have been found to contain traces of an early form of beer, which seems to have been used as part of a ritual honoring the dead.
The discovery was made at Qiaotou in southern China, in a platform mound measuring 80 by 50 m (262.5 x 164 ft) and standing 3 m (9.8 ft) above the ground, surrounded by an artificial ditch up to 2 m (6.6 ft) wide and 15 m (49.2 ft) deep. Along with two human skeletons, archeologists discovered dozens of ceramic vessels of varying size and shape, some of which had been painted and decorated.
Suspecting that the vessels may have been used for drinking alcohol, the team selected 20 of these pots and analyzed the residues left inside them. Specifically, they were looking for microfossils of starch, fungi, and plant matter called phytoliths, all of which are evidence of fermented beverages. To make sure that anything they found wasn’t just contamination from millennia of dirt, they also compared them to soil samples taken from around the area.
And sure enough, the insides of these vessels showed that they once held alcohol. The team found microbotanical residues like phytoliths and starch granules, and microbial residues like mold and yeast, which are consistent with beer fermentation. Importantly, these are not found naturally in soil or other artifacts.
“Through a residue analysis of pots from Qiaotou, our results revealed that the pottery vessels were used to hold beer, in its most general sense — a fermented beverage made of rice (Oryza sp.), a grain called Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and unidentified tubers,” says Jiajing Wang, co-author of the study. “This ancient beer though would not have been like the IPA that we have today. Instead, it was likely a slightly fermented and sweet beverage, which was probably cloudy in color.”
This 9,000-year-old vintage isn’t the oldest known example of beer-making ever found – that honor still belongs to a 13,000-year-old brew discovered in Israel a few years ago. But it is the oldest in China, and does seem to be the earliest evidence of using mold as the fermentation agent, by about 1,000 years.
“We don’t know how people made the mold 9,000 years ago, as fermentation can happen naturally,” says Wang. “If people had some leftover rice and the grains became moldy, they may have noticed that the grains became sweeter and alcoholic with age. While people may not have known the biochemistry associated with grains that became moldy, they probably observed the fermentation process and leveraged it through trial and error.”
It doesn’t seem like this beer was used for casual Friday after-work drinks, though. Rice domestication was still in its early days, so the drink would have been difficult to make and most likely reserved for special occasions. In this case, it appeared to be part of a ritual associated with the dead, as evidenced by the skeletons and the fact that it was a long way from any residential structures.
The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.