NEW 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