Oldest surviving straws hint at ancient culture of communal beer drinking
A set of lengthy silver and gold tubes dug up from a famous grave in the the Caucuses have been found to represent the oldest surviving drinking straws, with the scientists behind the discovery believing they were used for communal beer consumption. The specimens are 5,000 years old and help deepen our understanding of drinking culture in ancient hierarchical societies.
The set of eight tubes was unearthed back in 1987 in the Maikop Kurgan burial mound, a famous grave for Bronze Age elites in the Northern Caucasus. Researchers had since concluded the meter-plus-long tubes to be poles for a canopy, or, with bull figurines featuring on some, scepters. Researchers at the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences decided to dig a little further into their history, hoping to flesh out the details around their use.
"A turning point was the discovery of the barley starch granules in the residue from the inner surface of one of the straws," said lead author Dr. Viktor Trifonov. "This provided direct material evidence of the tubes from the Maikop Kurgan being used for drinking."
The presence of these granules suggests the straws were used for drinking beer, which ties in with other evidence of such practices among the early Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria from the third millennium BCE, hundreds of kilometers away. Artwork from this era shows people gathering around communal vessels using multiple long straws, which feature metal strainers to filter out impurities in ancient beer.
These metal strainers were also discovered in the Maikop straws, along with some other key similarities. So, though the researchers were unable to confirm that the barley discovered in them had been fermented, the weight of evidence led them to conclude they were used for drinking, and likely for drinking beer.
"Before having done this study, I would never have believed that in the most famous elite burial of the Early Bronze Age Caucasus, the main item would be neither weapons nor jewelry, but a set of precious beer-drinking straws," said Dr. Trifonov.
While the specimens are considered the oldest surviving drinking straws, they don't represent the oldest evidence of such implements. Seals from the fifth and fourth millennium BCE in Iran and Iraq show people using straws to drink from communal vessels, suggesting the practice stretches even further back in history. Interestingly, among the artifacts extracted from the Maikop Kurgan was a vessel large enough to hold seven pints worth of beer for each of the eight suspected drinkers.
"The finds contribute to a better understanding of the ritual banquets' early beginnings and drinking culture in hierarchical societies," said Dr. Trifonov.
The research was published in the journal Antiquity.
Source: Cambridge University Press via Phys.org