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New Evidence Suggests We May Have Beer, Not Bread, to Thank for Domesticated Grains

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The development of ancient beer has long been known to have been tied to the birth of civilization and ancient agriculture, but as it turns out, beer may have been even more instrumental than many historians already believe. According to new findings by Stanford University archaeologists, beer may have even predated other forms of cultivated cereal grains, which would be a portentous finding. It would suggest that the desire to continue brewing beer could be a big part of the reason that these cereal grains were domesticated in the first place, and that widespread beer might even predate widespread bread.

As described in a lengthy article on phys.org, the Stanford team led by Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology, has been conducting research in a cave in what is now Israel. There, in 13,000-year-old stone mortars found in the Raqefet Cave, they’ve discovered evidence of extensive beer production by the Natufian people, “a group of hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean.”

“This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world,” said Liu in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “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.”

Therefore, it must be assumed that the Natufian people essentially were gathering wild grains when they first discovered how to transform those grains into beer. Researchers theorize that they first did this for special occasions such as “ritual feasts that venerated the dead,” but you know how it goes with beer—eventually, you develop a taste for it. It follows that the agricultural domestication of some of those beer-friendly grains may have then taken place to provide a steady stream of beer for other occasions.

“We did not set out to find alcohol in the stone mortars, but just wanted to investigate what plant foods people may have consumed because very little data was available in the archaeological record,” Liu said.

Of course, the beer consumed by the Natufian people would bear little similarity to a modern India pale ale. These beers would likely have been made of multiple grains at once and been a “concoction like porridge or thin gruel,” according to the researchers, which would likely have packed a mild alcoholic punch thanks to fermentation achieved via wild yeast that are present in the air almost everywhere on Earth. In this way, it’s funny to think that the same types of brettanomyces (wild yeast) now prized by modern artisanal craft brewers may have had a hand in this 13,000-year-old beer production.

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