World’s oldest beer? Traces of 9,000-year-old brew discovered in ancient Chinese pottery

HANOVER, N.H. — The art of brewing beer dates back well beyond what historians have believed. Evidence of the world’s oldest beer has been discovered in 9,000 year old Chinese pots. These drinking vessels were found buried next to bodies in southern China and predate the oldest known evidence, recipes on 7,000 year old Egyptian papyrus scrolls.

Scientists at Dartmouth College believe that the ancient beer vessels unearthed at Qiaotou were likely some of the “earliest known painted pottery in the world.” They say there are no similar artifacts discovered anywhere previously that are as old.

Chemical analysis of the smaller drinking-type mug shows traces of beer fermentation not found in the surrounding soil or anywhere other than in pottery that contains alcohol.

Ancient beer: Hu vessel
Long-necked Hu vessel. (Photo by Leping Jiang)

“Our results revealed that the pottery vessels were used to hold beer, in its most general sense, a fermented beverage made of rice, a grain called Job’s tears, and unidentified tubers,” says study co-author Jiajing Wang, an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth, in a statement. “The results also showed that phytoliths of rice husks and other plants were also present in the residue from the pots. They may have been added to the beer as a fermentation agent.”

Ancient beer wasn’t used for happy hour

Researchers believe that ancient beer quaffing was part of a burial ritual honoring the dead. The ancient pots were discovered in a platform mound three meters high, surrounded by a manmade ditch during ongoing excavations at Qiaotou. The mound contained two human skeletons and multiple pottery pits with high-quality pottery, many of which were complete vessels. The pottery was painted with white slip and some of the vessels were decorated with abstract designs.

Some of the pottery vessels were relatively small and similar in size to drinking vessels used today and to those found in other parts of the world. Each of the pots could basically be held in one hand like a cup — unlike storage vessels, which are much larger in size. Seven of the 20 vessels, which were part of their analysis, appeared to be long-necked Hu pots, which were used to drink alcohol in the later historical periods.

The team analyzed microfossil residues: starch, phytolith (fossilized plant residue), and fungi, extracted from the interior surfaces of the pots. These residues were compared with control samples obtained from soil surrounding the vessels. Researchers identified microbotanical (starch granules and phytoliths) and microbial (mould and yeast) residues in the pots that were consistent with residues from beer fermentation.

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

At that time, most communities were hunter-gatherers who relied primarily on foraging. So given that rice harvesting and processing was labor intensive, the beer at Qiaotou was probably a ritually significant drink.

Accidental mold?

Ancient Beer: Painted potttery
Painted pottery vessels for serving drinks and food. Long-necked Hu vessel. (Photo by Leping Jiang)

The residue analysis of the pots also have traces of mold, which was used in the beer-making process.

“We don’t know how people made the mold 9,000 years ago, as fermentation can happen naturally,” explains 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.”

Given that the pottery at Qiaotou was found near the burials in a non-residential area, the researchers conclude that the pots of beer were likely used in ritualistic ceremonies relating to the burial of the dead. They speculate that ritualized drinking may have been integral to forging social relationships and cooperation, which served as a precursor to complex rice farming societies that emerged 4,000 years later.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.