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Drink to old times: World's 'oldest brewery' is discovered in northern Israel

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Drink to old times: World's 'oldest brewery' discovered in northern Israel brewed alcoholic beverages for ceremonies 13,000 years ago

  • The beer-like beverage may have been served in ceremonies 13,000 years ago 
  • The site is located in the Raqefet cave south of Haifa in today's northern Israel
  • The location of the mortars implies the drink was consumed during ceremonies

By Afp and Phoebe Weston For Mailonline

Published: 09:53 EDT, 13 September 2018 | Updated: 05:06 EDT, 14 September 2018

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Archaeologists have found what they believe is the world's oldest site for alcohol production. 

It is located in the Raqefet cave south of Haifa in today's northern Israel – a site that also served as a burial for the Natufian people.

Evidence suggests that thousands of years ago this group of hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean were quite the beer connoisseurs. 

Archaeologists believe the beer-like beverage may have been served in ceremonies some 13,000 years ago.

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Archaeologists inspect what they believe is the world's oldest site for alcohol production, south of the Israeli city of Haifa in cave dating back 13,000 years
Archaeologists inspect what they believe is the world's oldest site for alcohol production, south of the Israeli city of Haifa in cave dating back 13,000 years

Archaeologists inspect what they believe is the world's oldest site for alcohol production, south of the Israeli city of Haifa in cave dating back 13,000 years

HOW DID THE NATUFIAN PEOPLE MAKE BEER?

The hunter-gatherers of the Natufian Culture, which flourished in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago, were some of the first people to build permanent homes and tend to crops.

Evidence suggests that thousands of years ago this group of hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean were quite the beer connoisseurs.

Scientists believe that the Natufians used a three-stage brewing process.

First, starch of wheat or barley would be turned into malt.

This happens by germinating the grains in water to then be drained, dried and stored.  

Then, the malt would be mashed and heated. 

Finally, it would be left to ferment with airborne wild yeast.

'If we're right, this is the earliest testament in the world to alcohol production of any kind,' Dani Nadel, an archaeology professor at the University of Haifa told AFP.

'We know what the Natufians did in the cave. They buried some of their dead on a platform of flowers and plants, and apparently also produced a soup-like liquid, an alcoholic drink.'

According to Dr Nadel, the liquid was 'different than today's beer' and probably much weaker, 'but fermented'.

They discovered three small pits, or mortars, that had been carved into the surface of the Raqefet cave, according to the paper published in the 'Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports'.

Two of the small stone mortars were for storing grains, and the third for pounding and brewing grains ahead of fermentation, the study found.

The mortars were some 40-60 centimetres (one-two foot) deep.

The location of the mortars in the burial caves implies the drink was 'apparently connected to the ceremonies, or some sort of social event,' Dr Nadel said.

According to the paper, published with researchers from Stanford University, the beer-making innovations 'predated the appearance of domesticated cereals by several millennia in the Near East.'

'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,' said one of the lead researchers Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford.

The earliest bread remains to date were also recently recovered from the Natufian site in east Jordan.

Those could be from 11,600 to 14,600 years old. The beer finding reported in the latest paper could be from 11,700 to 13,700 years old.

Evidence suggests that thousands of years ago this group of hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean were quite the beer connoisseurs (stock image) 
Evidence suggests that thousands of years ago this group of hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean were quite the beer connoisseurs (stock image) 

Evidence suggests that thousands of years ago this group of hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean were quite the beer connoisseurs (stock image) 

A) shows the location of the Raqefet Cave and three additional Natufian sites; B)  shows the boulder mortars and C) shows a functional reconstruction of the mortars
A) shows the location of the Raqefet Cave and three additional Natufian sites; B)  shows the boulder mortars and C) shows a functional reconstruction of the mortars

A) shows the location of the Raqefet Cave and three additional Natufian sites; B)  shows the boulder mortars and C) shows a functional reconstruction of the mortars

Ancient beer is far from what we drink today.

It was most likely a multi-ingredient concoction like porridge or thin gruel, said Jiajing Wang, a doctoral student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and a co-author on the paper.

Researchers unearthed residual remains of starch and microscopic plant particles known as phytolith, which are typical in the transformation of wheat and barley to booze.

They believe that the Natufians used a three-stage brewing process.

First, starch of wheat or barley would be turned into malt.

This happens by germinating the grains in water to then be drained, dried and stored.

Scientists discovered three small pits, or mortars, that had been carved into the surface of the Raqefet cave (pictured), according to the paper
Scientists discovered three small pits, or mortars, that had been carved into the surface of the Raqefet cave (pictured), according to the paper

Scientists discovered three small pits, or mortars, that had been carved into the surface of the Raqefet cave (pictured), according to the paper

Pictured is the cave site. The Natufians were hunter-gatherers who lived in the eastern Mediterranean region 15,000 to 11,500 years ago, and began settling down rather than roving from place to place
Pictured is the cave site. The Natufians were hunter-gatherers who lived in the eastern Mediterranean region 15,000 to 11,500 years ago, and began settling down rather than roving from place to place

Pictured is the cave site. The Natufians were hunter-gatherers who lived in the eastern Mediterranean region 15,000 to 11,500 years ago, and began settling down rather than roving from place to place

Pictured are microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave. They believe that the Natufians used a three-stage brewing process
Pictured are microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave. They believe that the Natufians used a three-stage brewing process

Pictured are microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave. They believe that the Natufians used a three-stage brewing process

Then, the malt would be mashed and heated. Finally, it would be left to ferment with airborne wild yeast.

The hunter-gatherers of the Natufian Culture, which flourished in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago, were some of the first people to build permanent homes and tend to crops.

These innovations were crucial for the subsequent emergence of agriculture during the Neolithic era.

Previous research had suggested the centre of this culture was the Mount Carmel and Galilee region, and that it spread from here to other parts of the region.

However, more recent research has challenged this 'core region' theory, with excavations uncovering a well-preserved Natufian site, where they uncovered a large collection of charred plant remains.

They were 'the last in the region who lived in a different way than the villages we're familiar with,' Dr Nadel said.

The efforts put into producing the alcoholic beverage showed the importance of the drink in the Natufian culture, he noted.

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