New evidence found for early beer consumption
An article published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology has shed new light on the history of beer in the ancient Near East and, specifically, the southern Levant. The study examined remains from two sites in Israel dated to the Chalcolithic period (c. 5500–3900 B.C.E.). An analysis of storage and drinking vessels from both sites provided clear indications of the production and consumption of beer in large quantities. The discoveries add a new piece to the puzzle on the origins of beer.
The two sites examined for the study were Tel Tsaf in the northern Jordan Valley of Israel (c. 5200–4700 B.C.E.) and Peqi‘in Cave in the Upper Galilee (4500–3900 B.C.E.). In Peqi‘in Cave, evidence was found of beer consumption within a funerary context, leading the team to suggest that beer may have been part of prehistoric burial rites or ceremonies. In contrast, at Tel Tsaf, beer was found associated with several large courtyards and storage areas, suggesting it may have been served during large communal feasts or gatherings.
At both sites, the team analyzed microfossil material left behind in strainers from ceramic serving vessels common to the period. The analysis found evidence of starches, yeasts, and fibers, which are a strong indication of fermented grains, especially wheat and barley. The researchers believe the strainers were used to filter the beer as it was poured into serving vessels. This contrasts with later Bronze Age depictions of beer consumption, in which long reed or metal straws were used to drink from large communal vats.
History of Beer in Israel and the Ancient Near East
The earliest archaeological evidence for the production of beer dates back to at least 13,000 years ago, from a cave in northern Israel. However, it was not until about 4000 B.C.E. that textual and artistic depictions of beer appear in the ancient Near East, with stamp seals in Mesopotamia depicting the drinking of beer from large vats during feasts. By the Early Bronze Age (c. 3300–2300 B.C.E.), beer drinking had become common across much of the ancient Near East. In fact, the oldest brewery in the world was discovered in 2021 in Abydos, Egypt, dating to 5,000 years ago. The ancient Israelites also enjoyed large quantities of beer, and beer is frequently mentioned in the Bible (Proverbs 31:6: “Give strong drink [beer] to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress”). The Israelites were even instructed to pour out beer as a drink offering to God (Numbers 28:7–10).
From recreating Bronze Age brewing techniques to making beer with 5,000-year-old yeast, archaeologists have learned a lot about the history and practice of beer in the ancient Near East. In recent years, modern breweries have even revived 5,000-year-old Sumerian beer styles.
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