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The dawn of beer remains elusive in archaeological record

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Pints of beer lined up on a barNEW YORK CITY—Who brewed—and then enjoyed—the first beer? The civilization responsible for the widely beloved beverage must have been a very old one, but we don’t yet know who first brewed up a batch of beer, Christine Hastorf explained in a March 10 lecture at New York University on the archaeology of beer.

Hastorf, a University of California, Berkeley, anthropologist, noted that documented evidence of beer-making stretches back several thousands of years, but "unfortunately we don’t get a really deep story" beyond that. Looking at very early fire sites and settlements, Hastorf noted, "we can’t say they were making beer or not."

One place they certainly were making beer is Mesopotamia, where cuneiform tablets record the trade of beer around 4000 BC. The Sumerians were so enthralled with beer that around 1800 BC, someone inscribed an ode to Ninkasi, the goddess of beer, on a tablet that survives today. The Hymn to Ninkasi features verses such as "Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat / It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates," according to Ian S. Hornsey’s 2003 A History of Beer and Brewing.

"Who has a goddess of beer who doesn’t care about beer?" Hastorf asked rhetorically. "I think it’s fair to say that beer was important in Mesopotamian life." Perhaps because Ninkasi was a female deity, Sumerian brewing was the realm of women.

Ancient Egypt also has a record of beer production thousands of years ago, including enough detail on the ingredients and processes to inspire breweries such as Newcastle and Kirin to make their own facsimiles. There were fairly large-scale brewing operations in Egypt, Hastorf said: "It wasn’t just taverns and microbreweries and women producing it for their families."

A 2004 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pushes the history of fermented beverages back even further. In that study, Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and his colleagues presented evidence that neolithic Chinese villagers were making "a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape)" as early as 9,000 years ago. Dogfish Head brewery took a stab at reproducing the stuff, resulting in the award-winning—and potent—Chateau Jiahu. In terms of alcohol content, that beverage is closer to wine than beer, but its ingredients make it a sort of hybrid.

Hastorf ascribes the widespread popularity of early forms of beer—from the Fertile Crescent to Asia to South America, where chicha beer has its own long history—to a number of factors. It is a social beverage, certainly, which contributes to its ongoing popularity today. But perhaps of equal importance thousands of years ago were beer’s health benefits—its nutritional value and its importance as a purified drinking liquid in places where water supplies were unsafe.

On top of that, beer is relatively easy to brew and can be made from just about anything—all you need is water, cooking heat and some form of carbohydrate, along with enzymes and yeast that are abundant in nature. (The yeast can come from fruit; the enzymes from saliva.) "It’s pretty darn easy to make," Hastorf said. She cited colleagues who have advanced theories that humans first domesticated cereal crops to make beer, not just bread, and that humans evolved to associate ethanol, which is present in ripe fruit, with satiety. The various lines of evidence indicate that beer may well be as old as cooking itself, which began at least 250,000 years ago. "When people started harnessing fire and cooking, they probably started making beer," Hastorf said.

Photo credit: © iStockphoto/Sara Gray

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 4:19 pm 03/28/2011

    The invention of beer making was obviously beyond the abilities of mere humans – it must have required the intervention of some super intelligent alien beings!

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  2. 2. Adrian Meli 4:49 pm 03/28/2011

    Well, you learn something new every day. Hadn’t realized the origins go back that far, but glad to see our ancestors were having a good time…

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  3. 3. silvrhairdevil 5:03 pm 03/28/2011

    All it would take is some barley or other grain in a pot of water sitting beside a fire – an attempt to make soup, perhaps.

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  4. 4. Mike Barry 7:15 pm 03/28/2011

    Evidence continues to mount that the Sumerians were the earliest known makers of pretzels.

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  5. 5. Cramer 9:12 pm 03/28/2011

    Hastorf "cited colleagues who have advanced theories that humans first domesticated cereal crops to make beer."

    This is a more modest statement of saying that civilization came about for the purpose of making beer.

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  6. 6. Vnend 12:11 am 03/29/2011

    In Tim Powers’ first book, _The Drawing of the Dark_ one of of his characters says something to the effect of "…and in the very oldest versions of the story, it is beer, not fire, that Prometheus stole from the gods and gave to man."

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  7. 7. Mike Barry 2:16 am 03/29/2011

    Partayn’ on!

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  8. 8. oldvic 11:59 am 03/29/2011

    The full comic possibilities of beer had to wait until it became a fizzy drink, for reasons that are best left unsaid.

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  9. 9. mjasm 3:06 pm 03/29/2011

    The late Edward Abbey once defined civilization as that level of technology that makes possible the existence of cold beer.

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  10. 10. vagnry 4:39 pm 03/29/2011

    As Cramer wrote "This is a more modest statement of saying that civilization came about for the purpose of making beer."

    Some ten years ago, there was an article in SA claiming exav´ctly that.

    When people in the Eufrat-Tigris area started to make beer, they stopped their nomadic life and become peasants, to have an ample supply of grain for their brewing, and to be able to ferment beer in huge pots, that you could not carry along.

    The downside was more work, less varied food etc, but apparently it was worth it, even at the cost of a drop in average height of inches (18 cm), but they obviously felt it was worth it.

    ""It’s pretty darn easy to make," Hastorf said", but difficult to transport, and make/move about as a nomad.

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  11. 11. Pazuzu 5:04 pm 03/29/2011

    Right — anybody know of any good Martian brews? Maybe Doghead will come up with a good replica of what the aliens bestowed upon us.

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  12. 12. ennui 7:32 pm 03/29/2011

    It was the Atlanteans. They ruled the world with lightning and got rich from the sale of beer.
    Just wait till the sea bottom comes up again.

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  13. 13. BipinDesai 8:44 pm 03/29/2011

    Ancient Indian Literature refers to "SomRas". Probably a fermented drink.

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  14. 14. BipinDesai 8:48 pm 03/29/2011

    Ancient Indian Literature refers to "SomRas". Probably a fermented drink. Predecessor of Beer ?

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  15. 15. Cramer 11:58 pm 03/29/2011

    ""It’s pretty darn easy to make," Hastorf said", but difficult to transport, and make/move about as a nomad.

    That was the original purpose of distilled spirits: to transport beer. This supposedly occurred in the 12 century. Even though some distillation might have been done earlier for making medicines.

    Never heard about the loss of 18 cm of height. Really? That sounds like a lot, especially since other hominins have been short.

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  16. 16. hoamingin 10:20 am 03/30/2011

    The old Sumerian saying that I like is "not to know beer is not normal."
    Sumerian translations online at: 6.2.2

    But then "You should not pass judgment when you drink beer."

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  17. 17. raseclamid 6:53 am 03/31/2011

    I knew the story about Summerian beer, but I still don’t like beer.

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  18. 18. jeserac 8:16 am 04/1/2011

    Quite proper that it was someone from Beer keley that tried to shed light upon the origins of this cheerful nectar, hahaha!!!

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  19. 19. Wayne Williamson 2:45 pm 04/2/2011

    hoamingin…thanks for the link…it contains references to a lot of the old/sumerian gods….didn’t know the translations were on the web….

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  20. 20. TreeLuvBurdpu 12:20 am 09/19/2011

    I can tell you who made it. Dogs. Dogs invented beer.

    Some people enjoy beer but not all. Very few people enjoy beer as a child.

    All dogs love beer. From my sampling of 237 dogs I got a 100% positive response! That’s astounding! Most of them even prefer it to water.

    I think dogs were domesticated, and then dogs started lapping up the run-off from some garbage pile. After a while people noticed.

    Now how do I go about proving this?

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  21. 21. Danm1701 11:42 pm 12/22/2011

    My son makes his own beer. All you need is a carbohydrate and water. Yeast spores are naturally present in the air. Any wet grain left long enough will naturally ferment.

    Now…who smoked the first cannabis leaf?

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