New evidence suggests that 13,000 year old stone mortars from Raqefet Cave in Israel were used in brewing cereal-based beer – millennia before we thought beer was invented.
A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports would suggest that beer brewing was being practiced in the Eastern Mediterranean over five millennia before the earliest known evidence.
In an archaeological collaboration between the US’ Stanford University and the Israeli University of Haifa, three stone mortars from a 13,000-year-old Natufian burial cave were analysed. They have now confirmed that these mortars were used for brewing what and barley.
Li Liu, PhD from Stanford University says: “Alcohol making and food storage were among the major technological innovations that eventually led to the development of civilizations in the world, and archaeological science is a powerful means to help reveal their origins and decode their contents… We are excited to have the opportunity to present our findings, which shed new light on a deeper history of human society.”
Significantly, this places the brewing of beer earlier than the establishment of sedentary villages and cereal agriculture.
Who were the Natufians?
The Natufians were semi-sedentary foraging people, living in the Eastern Mediterranean between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic periods (after the last Ice Age). As part of their rituals, they collected locally available plants, stored malted seeds and made beer.
A vivid and colourful picture of Natufian ways
Prof. Dani Nadel, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Israel, was on the excavation team: “The Natufian remains in Raqefet Cave never stop surprising us.
“We exposed a Natufian burial area with about 30 individuals; a wealth of small finds such as flint tools, animal bones and ground stone implements, and about 100 stone mortars and cup marks.
“Some of the skeletons are well-preserved and provided direct dates and even human DNA, and we have evidence for flower burials and wakes by the graves.
“And now, with the production of beer, the Raqefet Cave remains provide a very vivid and colourful picture of Natufian lifeways, their technological capabilities and inventions.”
The results of the study indicate that the Natufians exploited over seven types of plants associated with the mortars. That includes wheat or barley, oat, legumes, and bast fibres like flax. They would then pack plant foods in fibre-made containers and store them in boulder mortars. Bedrock mortars would be used to brew wheat and barley based beer, which would then have likely been served in ritual feasts.
Fleshing out our understanding of Natufian society
In July, experts discovered the remnants of what may have been the oldest bread ever baked in Jordan at a site occupied by the Natufian people 14,400 years ago.
The fact that beer was brewed at Raqefet Cave 13,000 years ago fleshes out our understanding of Natufian social and ritual realms. It is thought that the brewing of beer inspired people to cultivate cereals in southern Levant – supporting a hypothesis proposed by archaeologists more than 60 years ago.