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Evidence of beer drinking in China 9,000 years ago

A recent study has found evidence of beer drinking in Southern China 9,000 years ago. These findings are based on the discovery of ancient pots at a burial site in Qiaotou that contained several chemicals that are still used to make beer.

A research team from Dartmouth College and the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology analyzed various types of pottery found during the excavations at Qiaotou, an ancient burial site from Southern China. Seven of the 20 vessels were long-necked Hu pots, which were known to be used for drinking alcohol in later historical periods.

Scientists analyzed microfossil residues extracted from the interior of the pots, and discovered microbotanical (phytoliths and starch granules) and microbial (yeast and mold) residues, which are characteristic ingredients of beer-like alcoholic beverages.

“Through a residue analysis of pots from Qiaotou, our results revealed that the pottery vessels were used to hold beer, in its most general sense – a fermented beverage made of rice (Oryza sp.), a grain called Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and unidentified tubers,” said study co-author Professor Jiajing Wang. 

“This ancient beer though would not have been like the IPA that we have today. Instead, it was likely a slightly fermented and sweet beverage, which was probably cloudy in color.”

The researchers also found phytoliths of rice husks present in the residues, which were probably used as fermentation agents. Since 9,000 years ago rice was still in an early stage of domestication in China, and thus rice harvesting and processing was quite a difficult and labor intensive process, 

Professor Wang and his colleagues believe that the beer produced and consumed there had of special, ritualistic significance. The fact that the pottery was found near an ancient burial site in a non-residential area seems to confirm such a hypothesis. However, it is not yet clear how this beverage was actually produced. 

“We don’t know how people made the mold 9,000 years ago, as fermentation can happen naturally,” said Professor Wang. “If people had some leftover rice and the grains became moldy, they may have noticed that the grains became sweeter and alcoholic with age. While people may not have known the biochemistry associated with grains that became moldy, they probably observed the fermentation process and leveraged it through trial and error.”

This research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.  

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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