It’s just beer, right?  Why are the History and Discovery Channels doing specials on beer?  If you believe the History Channel, then you know that the answer is:Aliens-meme

Joking aside, the invention and subsequent influence yielded by beer helped shape civilization as we know it.   Beer dates back to early Mesopotamia and traces of it have been found in cultures all over the world.   It may even be the oldest fermented beverage on the planet. Beer can be traced back to the earliest civilizations, when humankind began settling into organized societies and made the transformation from hunter/gatherer to farmer.  It was, most likely, created by accident when a farmer left his recently harvested grain outside in the rain and upon returning days later, sampled the concoction that remained.  The slurry of water and grain, now fermented from the heat of the sun and the microscopic yeast that came into contact with it, was the world’s first beer.  The is no singular and specific story to which the invention can be attributed but this is the best guess of historians and archaeologists.  If true, it is estimated to have taken place sometime around 9500 BCE during the early Neolithic Era.  The early Neolithic Era is when we first find the cultivation of crops and storage of food supplies within granaries.  This is still pre-pottery but there were ceramic vessels in which the fermentation could have occurred.

The next appearance of a fermented beverage occurs in China around 7000 BCE.  This beverage wouldn’t be beer as we traditionally know it as it is believed to have been a rice, honey, and fruit based beverage.  Rice, though frowned upon by modern brewers, is still a fermentable cereal grain and thus, I believe this beverage to also be a precursor to beer as we know it today.  Shards of bronze and pottery vessels, sixteen to be precise, were discovered in the Neolithic village of Jiahu, in China’s Henan province.  Without getting too technical, the shards were determined to have once held a similar liquid (13 of 16 at least).  The scientists who studied the shards identified certain acidities to be consistent with grapes- offering relatively conclusive proof that they once held an early fermented beverage.  If you are interested in the more technical science behind the discovery, the conclusions can be found here).

The earliest chemical evidence of barley based beer brings us back to the Middle East and the Sumerians.  Located in the Zagros Mountains of modern Iran, at the archaeological site of Godin Tepe, a Sumerian trading post, researchers discovered “a pale yellowish residue sticking to the interior of a double-handled pottery jar.”   Archaeological chemist Dr. Patrick McGovern and organic chemist Dr. Rudolph Michel tested the substance and the results were quite conclusive.

“Using a standard chemical test, Dr. McGovern and Dr. Michel determined that the residue contained calcium oxalate, which is a major component of material that settles out at the bottom of brewery vats and storage tanks and is characteristic of barley beer.
Although oxalates occur naturally in large amounts in spinach and rhubarb, which grow in the Iranian highlands today, the researchers said those plants probably made up a minor part of human diet in antiquity, compared with barley bread and beer. In any event, they said, spinach and rhubarb were unlikely to have been stored or processed in the type of pottery vessels found in the ruins.  Moreover, archeologists said they found considerable quantitities of barley in the trading post’s storerooms.(NYT)”
Hieroglyph found on Sumerian pottery in Godin Tepe.  Image shows three people drinking from a vessel that is believed to hold beer.

Hieroglyph found on Sumerian pottery in Godin Tepe. Image shows three people drinking from a vessel that is believed to hold beer.


The Sumerians were already known to scholars as large beer drinkers due to the heavy presence of beer-related artwork throughout the culture.  It’s during the Sumerian civilization that we first see widespread production and consumption of beer with verifiable evidence.   The oldest records of Sumerian culture date as far back as 2500 BCE but the culture may be as old as 4000 BCE.  These records include a poem dedicated to the Sumerian matron goddess of beer, Ninkasi, now called the Hymn of Ninkasi.  The poem describes, in great detail, the brewing process used to create beer.  My favorite excerpt is:

Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the

filtered beer of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of

Tigris and Euphrates.

The Sumerian legend of Gilgamesh also references beer and its production though not in the detail of Ninkasi’s Hymn.  The Epic of Gigamesh is one of, and may be THE, oldest works of literature in the world.  Gilgamesh is the precursor to Beowulf and Homer and his tale dates back to 2500 BCE.  The most common version of the story was written twelve tablets that were created in 1300-1000 BCE by Sin-liqe-unninni, a Sumerian priest, and was discovered in 1849 by Hormuzd Rassam- the first Assyrian, Ottoman, and Middle Eastern archaeologist.  In the tale, Gilgamesh attends a wedding where beer is prominently featured, once again demonstrating the significance of the beverage to the culture.

Sumerian tablets were discovered in Ebla, Syria in 1974 that also addressed beer.  The Ebla Tablets identified a beer named for the city, much like many of our modern German beers.  The tablets possessed information that indicated that there were multiple types of beer available in the city.  The tablets, written between 2500-2250 BCE, offer evidence that brewer’s used different recipes to make different flavors or styles of beer.

That is a pretty good breaking point for today.  Next week I’ll discuss beer as it relates to the Hammurabi Code and the production of beer throughout Egypt.  I hope you all enjoyed!

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4


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