13,000-year-old brewery discovered in Israel, the oldest in the world
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Find predates grain cereal domestication by 4,000 years

13,000-year-old brewery discovered in Israel, the oldest in the world

Ancient Natufians tamed seven species of wild grains for ancient ale, according to new Stanford University study

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave (left) are compared to the references Stanford University Prof. Li Liu and her research replicated in their beer brewing experiments. (Credit: Li Liu)
    Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave (left) are compared to the references Stanford University Prof. Li Liu and her research replicated in their beer brewing experiments. (Credit: Li Liu)
  • A team of Stanford University and Israeli archaeologists stand in the entrance to Raqefet Cave, where they found evidence for the oldest man-made alcohol in the world. From left, Dani Nadel, Li Liu, Jiajing Wang and Hao Zhao. (Image credit: Li Liu)
    A team of Stanford University and Israeli archaeologists stand in the entrance to Raqefet Cave, where they found evidence for the oldest man-made alcohol in the world. From left, Dani Nadel, Li Liu, Jiajing Wang and Hao Zhao. (Image credit: Li Liu)
  • Two pints of beer (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)
    Two pints of beer (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)
  • Archaeologists excavating at the Raqefet Cave where a 13,000-year-old brewery was discovered, August 2018. (Dani Nadel, University of Haifa)
    Archaeologists excavating at the Raqefet Cave where a 13,000-year-old brewery was discovered, August 2018. (Dani Nadel, University of Haifa)
  • Inside the Raqefet Cave where a 13,000-year-old brewery was discovered, August 2018. (Dani Nadel, University of Haifa)
    Inside the Raqefet Cave where a 13,000-year-old brewery was discovered, August 2018. (Dani Nadel, University of Haifa)

Which came first: beer or bread production? The 60-year-old archaeological debate is coming to a (frothy) head as a new Stanford University study of three 13,000-year-old stone mortars offers the earliest known physical evidence of an extensive ancient beer-brewing operation.

An international team of scientists discovered and tested residue from the mortars, which were used by the semi-nomadic Natufians and discovered near a graveyard site called the Raqefet Cave, in the Carmel Mountains near Haifa, Israel, according to a Stanford News article on the discovery. The Natufians lived in the Levant between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods.

The find comes on the heels of a July report that archaeologists working in northeastern Jordan discovered the charred remains of bread baked by Natufians some 11,600 to 14,600 years ago. According to the Stanford scientists, the ancient beer residue comes from 11,700 to 13,700 years old, potentially predating the bread.

Regardless of which came first, both the brewery and the bread production precede evidence of domesticated cereals in the Levant, which arrived some 4,000 years later.

A stone structure at the Shubayqa 1 archaeological site in northeastern Jordan, where ancient bread was found. The fireplace where the bread was baked is in the middle. (Alexis Pantos)

The Stanford team’s findings will be published in the October 2018 edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science in an article titled, “Fermented beverage and food storage in 13,000  year-old stone mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel: Investigating Natufian ritual feasting.”

Through laboratory analysis, other archaeological evidence found in the cave, and the wear of the stones, the team discovered that the ancient Natufians used species from seven plant families, “including wheat or barley, oat, legumes and bast fibers (including flax),” according to the article.

“They packed plant-foods, including malted wheat/barley, in fiber-made containers and stored them in boulder mortars. They used bedrock mortars for pounding and cooking plant-foods, including brewing wheat/barley-based beer likely served in ritual feasts ca. 13,000 years ago,” the scientists write.

A team of Stanford University and Israeli archaeologists stand in the entrance to Raqefet Cave, where they found evidence for the oldest man-made alcohol in the world. From left, Dani Nadel, Li Liu, Jiajing Wang and Hao Zhao. (Image credit: Li Liu)

According to team leader Li Liu, the Sir Robert Ho Tung Professor in Chinese Archaeology at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, “This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world.”

“It has long been speculated that the thirst for beer may have been the stimulus behind cereal domestication, which led to a major social-technological change in human history; but this hypothesis has been highly controversial,” the Stanford authors say. “We report here of the earliest archaeological evidence for cereal-based beer brewing by a semi-sedentary, foraging people.”

How to concoct an ancient brew

The Stanford team was not on a quest to quench their curiosity about beer production when they initiated their study on the Raqefet Cave stones.

Archaeologists excavating at the Raqefet Cave where a 13,000-year-old brewery was discovered, August 2018. (Dani Nadel, University of Haifa)

“We… just wanted to investigate what plant foods people may have consumed because very little data was available in the archaeological record,” Liu told Stanford News.

After laboratory analysis, the team hypothesized that the Natufian brewery used a three-stage process: malt production from the starch of wheat or barley through grain germination, mashing of the malted grain, and finally, fermentation through the aid of wild yeast.

This is the site location and artifacts analyzed. (A) The location of Raqefet Cave and three additional Natufian sites in Mt. Carmel; (B) field photos of the studied boulder mortars (BM1,2) and the location of BM3 on the cave floor (scale bar and arrow: 20 cm); (C) a functional reconstruction of the mortars: a boulder mortar used to store plants in a basket with a stone slab on top, and a bedrock mortar used for pounding and cooking plants and brewing beer. (Credits to Elsevier, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports Credits for photos: Dror Maayan; Graphic design: Anat Regev-Gisis)

To test their hypothesis, the scientists recreated the ancient brew in the lab.

No beer sommelier has as yet gone on record about the brew’s taste. But the concoction of several mixed cooked grains would have been a thin mash, or gruel, rather than the clear, popular hoppy beverage quaffed around the world today, according to co-author Jiajing Wang, a doctoral student in Stanford’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.

On the seam of history

The Natufians were among the first to domesticate cereal grains. According to University of Copenhagen archaeologist Tobias Richter, who led the Shubayqa 1 excavations that discovered the charred bread remains this July, “Natufian hunter-gatherers are of particular interest to us because they lived through a transitional period when people became more sedentary and their diet began to change.”

Human burial (Homo 18) discovered in the Natufian grave site at the Raqefet Cave near Mount Carmel, Israel (Dani Nadel, CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)

However, apparently even before bread became the staff of life, beer gave it meaning.

“Beer making was an integral part of rituals and feasting, a social regulatory mechanism in hierarchical societies,” said Stanford’s Wang.

The Raqefet Cave was discovered in 1956 and first excavated in 1970-72, and then again for several seasons from 2004 by Israeli archaeologists from the University of Haifa. In addition to this new discovery of the first man-made alcohol production, the cave also provides one of the earliest evidence of the use of flower beds on grave sites, discovered under human skeletons.

“The Natufian remains in Raqefet Cave never stop surprising us,” co-author Prof. Dani Nadel, of the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology, said in a press release. “We exposed a Natufian burial area with about 30 individuals, a wealth of small finds such as flint tools, animal bones and ground stone implements, and about 100 stone mortars and cupmarks. Some of the skeletons are well-preserved and provided direct dates and even human DNA, and we have evidence for flower burials and wakes by the graves.

Inside the Raqefet Cave where a 13,000-year-old brewery was discovered, August 2018. (Dani Nadel, University of Haifa)

“And now, with the production of beer, the Raqefet Cave remains provide a very vivid and colorful picture of Natufian lifeways, their technological capabilities and inventions,” he said.

Stanford’s Liu posited that the beer production was of a religious nature because its production was found near a graveyard.

“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,” she said.

“Alcohol making and food storage were among the major technological innovations that eventually led to the development of civilizations in the world, and archaeological science is a powerful means to help reveal their origins and decode their contents,” said Liu. “We are excited to have the opportunity to present our findings, which shed new light on a deeper history of human society.”

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