Beer has played dietary, social, and ritual roles across ancient societies. It is a beverage with prehistoric records. Yet, it is not easy to positively detect archeological evidence of the alcoholic beverage because most clear markers of beer’s presence have lacked durability until recently. Time markers are artifact forms that research shows to be diagnostic of a particular period.
How beer is made
In a study that appeared in the peer-reviewed PLOS One journal, Andreas G. Heiss from the Austrian Archaeological Institute (ÖAI) Department for Bioarchaeology and colleagues wrote that the identification of direct archeological remains of alcoholic beverages as well as their production remains a challenge to archeological science. This is because most of the markers available are either not diagnostic or durable enough to be used as secure proof. Their study addresses this question.
Beer is brewed from cereal grains, mostly from malted barley although maize (corn), rice, and wheat are also used. To explore the potential microstructural changes in brewed cereal grains, the researchers simulated the malting process of commercially-available malted barley through charring.
Experimental barley grains vs. ancient grains
Then, the team compared the experimental grains produced under lab conditions to that of the ancient grains found from five archeological sites, which date back to the 4th millennium BCE: three beer-brewing sites in the central European lakeshore settlements and two in Predynastic Egypt. Cereal-based foods were previously discovered in containers, but the presence of beer had not been confirmed.
The authors used electron microscopy and found that their experimental barley grains had thin aleurone cell walls. This is specific to grains of the Poaceae grass family. The ancient grain samples found in five prehistoric sites also have the same aleurone cell wall thinning. The team said that although there are other possible reasons for such kind of thinned cell wall in the barley grains, such as degradation during heating, enzymatic activity, or fungal decay, they were able to rule all of these out with the careful study.
Aleurone layer of the grains
Based on their analysis, the cell wall breakdown in the aleurone layer of the grains can serve as the general marker of the malting process. Malting is controlled germination that converts raw grain into malt for use in brewing.
The novel diagnostic tool for determining the presence of beer in artifacts even if there are no intact grains available promises to broaden the world’s knowledge of prehistoric brewing and malting. The authors wrote that decades ago, brewing scientists and plant physiologists described structural changes in the germinating grain and the same structural changes have been turned into a diagnostic feature for ancient grains. The diagnostic tool works even if the archeological grains concerned are preserved as burn crusts on pottery or already pulverized.
Heiss told Science Daily that for more than a year, they kept checking their new diagnostic tool on the new feature. It took them quite a while to realize that by doing so, they also “provided the oldest evidence for malt-based food in Neolithic central Europe.”
In 2018, traces of 13,000-year-old beer were also found in Haifa, Israel. The archeological site Raqefet Cave in the said city was first discovered in 1956 and it provided vital insight into the ancient group Natufians. Archeologists unearthed the remains of 30 individuals there along with plant impressions, tools, and animal bones. It indicated that Natufians buried the deceased on beds of flowers. The story was featured by Smithsonian Magazine. It was in 2018 when scientists discovered that the ancient group also brewed beer at the Raqefet Cave, leading to the theory of the earliest-known production of alcoholic beverages.
Stanford archeologist Ki Liu and team hoped to learn more about the semi-sedentary, foraging Natufians. When they set out to discover what they ate, they were not specifically looking for traces of ancient beer but that was what they discovered from the stone mortars found from the Raefet Cave. The 13,000-year-old vessels contained phytolith and starch residues as well as plant particles. These particles, they analyzed, are typical in the transformation of barley and wheat to booze.
The oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world
Their discovery accounted for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world. Their study, which appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science, mentioned that the residue and use-wear analysis suggests that the two stone mortars were used to store cereals. The other one was used to brew, book, or pound beer. The study authors also said that the Natufians’ production was dependent on species from seven different plant families, which include legumes, bast fibers, barley, oats, and wheat. The researchers created their Natufian-style beer in a lab experiment and compared the starch granules to the ones they discovered in the ancient vessels. The use-wear analysis used by the team is a method in archeology to identify the functions of artifact tools by closely examining their edges and working surfaces. The method is used mainly on stone tools and sometimes referred to as the traceological analysis.
Thousands of years have passed and the global beer industry is now thriving, forecast to reach US$805 billion by 2024. Market consumption likewise grew at a reasonable rate, crossing 175 billion liters by 2017. According to Statista, the leading countries worldwide in terms of beer production in 2018 include China (381.2 million hectoliters), United States (214.61 million hL), Brazil (141.38 million hL), Mexico (119.8 million hL), Germany (93.65 million hL), Russia (77.47 million hL), and Japan (52.64 million hL).
Now that Heiss and the team have revealed the new microstructural marker that shows how to detect the presence of beer in ancient ruins, it will help other archeologists in the world in their respective endeavors. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that there are currently about 6,500 professional anthropologists and archeologists in the US earning an average of $63,670 per year. To become an anthropologist or archeologist, one needs a master’s degree or Ph.D. in anthropology or archeology. They also need to experience doing fieldwork in either discipline. Bachelor’s degree holders may find work as fieldworkers or assistants. Other developed countries will most probably have the same ratio of anthropologists and archeologists.
The new diagnostic feature for confirming the presence of beer in artifacts will help researchers better understand the patterns in the evolution of cultural events.