During excavations in southern China, archaeologists found ceramic vessels with traces of a beer drink in burials dating back to nine thousand years. This is one of the world's oldest records of beer production and consumption. The article was published in PLOS ONE magazine.
In a mound with two human skeletons on the Qiaotou platform, researchers discovered painted ceramic pots decorated with abstract patterns. The very discovery of painted ceramics of this age became a sensation. Such artifacts have not been found earlier on any other monuments of that time.
Some of the pottery is small and similar in shape to the drinking vessels still in use today. The authors note that each of these vessels is easy to hold in one hand, like a cup. Seven of the twenty vessels found are in the shape of "Hu pots", which were used for drinking alcohol in later historical periods.
To confirm that the jars were used for alcohol, the scientists analyzed the remains of starch and phytoliths - fossilized plants and fungi collected from the inside of the pots. The results of the analysis showed that the samples contain microbial mold and yeast, corresponding to beer fermentation products and not naturally occurring in soil or other organic products. Also found in the samples were phytoliths of rice husks and other plants, which, according to scientists, ancient brewers added as a fermentation agent.
According to researchers, the ancient beer tasted differently to the modern one. They suggest that it was a slightly fermented, cloudy, sweetish drink, such as a fermented drink made from rice or the herb Coix lacryma-jobi, popularly called "Iovlev's tears".
Based on the fact that vessels with traces of beer were buried near the graves, archaeologists concluded that drinking beer was part of a funeral ceremony or ritual of honoring the dead.
The authors note that the mold found in Qiaotou pots is very similar to the mold found in koji mushrooms used to make sake and other fermented rice drinks in East Asia.
Beer is technically a fermented beverage made from crops through a two-step processing process. At the first stage - the stage of saccharification - enzymes convert starch into sugar. In the second stage - the fermentation stage - the yeast converts sugar into alcohol and starts the fermentation process with the release of carbon dioxide. In both processes, the mold acts as an agent that triggers saccharification and fermentation.
"We don't know how people got there nine thousand years ago," said research director Jiajing Wang, assistant professor of anthropology in a press release from Darmouth College. "Fermentation can occur naturally. If people had rice leftovers. and grains that became moldy, they could notice that over time the grains become sweeter and stronger. Although ancient people did not know the biochemistry of the fermentation process, they came to it by trial and error."
Since cultivation of cultivated rice in the Yangtze River Valley in southern China began only 8000-6000 years ago, scientists suggest that in an earlier period, the inhabitants of the region deliberately harvested and processed wild rice to produce a ritual drink.