More than 10,000 years ago, in a cave in what is today Israel, hunter-gatherers called the Natufians did something we continue to do today: They brewed beer, a new study says.
That makes the Natufians’ brews “the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world,” Li Liu, the study’s author and a Stanford University archaeology professor, says in a press release. The study was published in the Journal of Archeological Sciences: Reports.
Archeologists say the beer was “likely served in ritual feasts” about 13,000 years ago, meaning the Natufians were brewing beer thousands of years before domesticated cereals appeared in the Near East. Those findings suggests beer-making wasn’t just a way to get rid of grain that didn’t become bread, Liu says.
“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,” Liu says in the press release.
Archaeologists uncovered the evidence of beer-making by analyzing three stone mortars discovered in the Raqefet Cave, which was a burial site for the ancient civilization not far from the Israeli city Haifa, according to the study.
“We know what the Natufians did in the cave,” says Dani Nadel, an archaeology professor at the University of Haifa and a co-author of the study, according to AFP. “They buried some of their dead on a platform of flowers and plants, and apparently also produced a soup-like liquid, an alcoholic drink.”
Another researcher — study co-author and Stanford doctoral student Jiajing Wang — had a similarly unappetizing description of the Natufians’ beer. She said it was likely similar to a thin gruel or porridge with many ingredients, according to a Stanford press release.
It wasn’t particularly strong, either, according to the study.
“The Raqefet Cave beer was likely very low in alcoholic content,” the study’s conclusion says.
The study also says the amount of time and work Natufians invested in the brewing process demonstrates the “important ritual function played by alcoholic beverages in the Natufian culture.”
Researchers found that the Natufians used seven kinds of plants for the beer, including legumes, oat, wheat or barley, and flax.
Their brewing required three steps: malting, mashing and fermenting, the study says.
Malting would happen when grains germinated in water, and were then drained and stored. Next, during the mashing stage, the ancient brewers would grind the malt, add more water and heat the mixture. Fermentation occurred when yeast was mixed in and allowed to sit, according to the study.
“The Natufian remains in Raqefet Cave never stop surprising us,” Nadel said in a statement, adding that the roughly 30 excavators at the site have dug up a “wealth of small finds such as flint tools, animal bones and ground stone implements, and about 100 stone mortars and cupmarks.”