The birth of brewing practices during prehistory.


The quest for a kind of beer which could have appeared in the world before the first evidences of Neolithic culture (crops, domesticated animals, villages, pottery, ...) has much stimulated the imagination.

Three conjectures sum up the various hypotheses according which this event could have happened between 30,000 and 10,000 BC, the latter date setting the oldest domestication of food plants and animals in the Near East and Asia :


a) The accidental occurence of a fermented porridge during prehistory would have led humans to reproduce the phenomenon for their own benefit. Like higher primates, humans also developed an appetite for ethanol. This stimulus led them to reproduce and perfect the initial accidental fermentations. This is the assumption of the reproducible technical accident with prehistorical very rudimentary material means.


b) Spiritual life in the Upper Paleolithic was sufficiently advanced for ceremonies to be the occasion for drinking fermented drinks. The prehistorical cave paintings testify to the richness of that collective mental life. The funeral practices of Neanderthal for example, one of the human branches coexisting in Europe with others like Homo Sapiens, are accompanied by rituals. The collective psychic life in the Paelolithic would have been a stronger dynamic than the development of material life. Hypothesis of the human spiritual quest as a driving force for human evolution.


c) Simply gathering or picking up grain would have effortlessly provide enough starch to brew some primeval beers. These first grain surpluses would have been collected in ecosystems rich in wild grasses and a very low human population density. The surpluses of raw material (grains, tubers) generates major social changes, including new drinking behaviors. This third assumption is based on economics.


We examine one by one these 3 assumptions according to scientific knowledges and the most recent archaeological discoveries.


A Paleolithic beer?

The recent discovery of traces of beer in the Raqefet cave (ancient Jordan-Palestine) inhabited by the Natoufians, a population of hunter-gatherers, has revived the debate. These traces are more than 13,000 years old. Beer precedes by 2 to 3 millennia the oldest domestication of wheat and barley in this region which will become the Fertile Crescent. The primitive cultivation of cereals was therefore not a necessary condition for prehistoric man to brew beer. This is not trivial information when it is based on scientific evidence. The drink produced by the Natoufians is indeed a kind of Paleolithic (or Mesolithic) 'beer'.

However, the debate is less about the chronology of the first beers than about the causes of their appearance. What motivated humans to regularly produce fermented drinks based on grains, roots, fruit and honey? The observation of accidental fermentation, the search for alcohol or the collection of plants rich in starch, which could be stored and transformed into fermented products. Or all three mechanisms combined.


The replicable technical accident thesis.

Beer is said to have originated by accident from the fortuitous contact of grains, water and wild yeasts in some area of the world where wild grasses were growing. The hazardous result, a sour, low-alcoholic porridge, tasted by passing humans, would have been enjoyed. Assimilation, resistance and addiction to alcohol are a datum of human physiology, like that of some mammals (monkeys, elephants, etc.), spontaneous consumers of fermented fruit in their natural environment. A seductive hypothesis but totally untestable. We will not find on Earth a human group remained in the Stone Age, to subject it to the test of spontaneous choice: adoption or rejection of this mash half processed by alcoholic fermentation.

This hypothesis has a second flaw. Even if such an accident had occurred a million times in the presence of humans, it does not necessarily lead to the imitation and regular production of the fermented porridge. In the search for sources of alcohol, spontaneously fermenting fruit or honey are at hand, available effortlessly, albeit seasonally. Wine more than beer lends itself to this hypothesis. Beer, which is very random in its manufacturing process (starch does not ferment spontaneously), does not necessarily become an acculturated object, a drink whose secrets man appropriates and masters the regular production process. Unlike fruit wines, beer requires a human technical intervention for the accidental beer to be reproduced at will. Other dynamics and factors, almost absent in the Paleolithic, are necessary, notably the intensive collection of grains, their collective storage and a semi-sedentary way of life compatible with the storage of these grains. Nothing is excluded, but nothing is verifiable with the archaeological data we have so far.

The beer brewed in the Raqefet cave is part of a funerary ritual. The Natoufians already show a certain technical mastery of brewing. The Natufians already show a certain technical mastery of brewing[1]. The technical data show that there is nothing accidental in the beer brewed at Raqefet. The archaeological context of the cave reinforces this conclusion (burials, funerary ritual, mortars, cavities dug in the rock, presence of grains and other plants brought into the cave).


The thesis of the human spiritual quest.

The spiritual quest would be the driving force behind the use of fermented drinks, not the technical chance. We would like to find traces of this in the "goddesses of fertility" whose image was left in the form of statuettes and rock engravings in various parts of the world by Palaeolithic cultures.

Venus from the Abri de Laussel in Dordogne, France. (Gravetian period, -25.000 ans)
Musée d'Aquitaine à Bordeaux.

Nothing is known about these supposed rituals, patronised by female figures whose personality and function raise more questions than answers (Matriarch callipyge? Paleolithic steatopygeal Venus? Divinity of fertility? Simple figuration?). We do not know the use of these objects and even the meaning of these depictions. The link with possible fermented drinks is even more tenuous.

The last hunter-gatherers observed just at the time of their first contact with modern man (Boshimans, Aborigines from Australia, Hadzas from Tanzania, Semang from Malaysia, etc.) were more likely to use psychotropic plants than alcoholic products in their quest for an alternative consciousness, journeys through the mind or communication with supernatural powers. Anthropology points out that shamanism, if one can speculate on its ancient practices and assume its existence in the Paleolithic, rarely uses fermented alcoholic beverages where it has been observed.

The funeral practices observed in the Raqefet cave link collective behaviours related to death and the brewing of beer. But there is no evidence that they were the reason why the Natoufians brewed beer. It will be necessary to wait for further discoveries to find out whether beer was also produced and consumed as an ordinary, everyday drink.


The grain oversupply thesis, a source of social change.

The domestication of cereals has a corollary: the granaries. But experiments have shown that small groups of humans could collect wild grasses effortlessly with simple sickles of stones or bones and subsist without waiting for the Neolithic revolution. In the absence of pottery, primitive storage of wild grains (basketry/skins/pits) could lead to the regular production of beer in certain regions of the world especially fertile in grasses (Near East, Africa, Asia). This is the most serious working hypothesis. It postulates a possible occurrence of beer in the Paleolithic period thanks to the storage of starch (grains, tubers), if not annually at least seasonally, as both technical (regular brewing) and social conditions (sharing and allocation of collective reserves) of beer brewing. This regular beer production implies human technical mastery, the social reproduction of know-how and its integration into collective lifestyles. Here again, the invention of the brewery cannot be the result of an accident or chance!

Extending this idea, researchers have assumed that beer consumption and the resulting need for grain have prompted groups of people to domesticate the precious grains. Beer is thought to be the cause, not the consequence, of the domestication of grain[2]. The answers were hardly convincing. Moreover, the arguments suffered from a serious flaw: based solely on data from Near Eastern archaeology, they assumed that the only way to brew was by malting the grain. A very reductive view, even for the Near Eastern area (Six brewing pathways). Braidwood concluded in 1953 that there was no conclusive argument in favour of beer, unleavened bread, or beer-like porridge as determining factors in the domestication of grain in the Near-East.


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None of the three theses is convincing, for lack of verifiable data. All of them try to transposing only one process of modern western brewing, grain malting, into the distant past. This anachronistic approach ignores the 5 other brewing methods among the 6 possible ways of starch hydrolysis. In China, recent discoveries of traces of Neolithic beer in the Yellow River basin show that 9000 years ago several brewing methods were known and mastered. The technique of beer ferments coexisted with that of malting, and others undoubtedly (insalivation, amylolytic plants, sour mashes, over-ripening of starchy fruits). Even in the Near-East, these 6 brewing methods would have been carried out.

More worryingly, all these assumptions about the origin of beer imagine that a fermented drink produced by the mere chance of biochemical processes can be spontaneously adopted within a human community by the mere attraction of alcohol, without social and mental adaptation, without economic and technical evolution.

This ex-nihilo birth of beer is a figment of the mind. Taken up again in 1986 by Solomon Katz and Mary Voigt, the question will be based on the ethnography of the numerous brewing peoples of the planet. They posited that the consumption of beer induced a nutritional advantage compared to simple cereal soups. Malting and fermentation provide digestibility, vitamins and amino acids, dietary observations which are no longer disputed today. In passing, the authors raised a crucial question. If beer coincided with the first cereal-based meals, it could not be reduced to being a simple food, even if it was liquid and full of vitamins! Beer has became part of the cultural complexes by contributing to the material and religious construction of Mesolithic societies. The Raqefet cave proves them right on this point.


The myth of spontaneous beer.

Beer doesn't come by chance!

At least beer according to our technical definition (Fondamentals). Hunter-gatherers do not become beer brewers and drinkers without mastering the sources of starch (grains/tubers), without acculturating the fermented beverages, without deep changes in their social relationships and drinking manners, without a regular supply of starch in order to brew beer and consume, year after year, a new fermented concoction that binds the group together and conveys a part of its social logic.

Most "primitive" societies with a strong brewing tradition (Amerindian, African or Asian) recount the simultaneous appearance of agriculture/horticulture and beer through founding myths. The gift or sacrifice of a deity or an ancestor brings to humans the vital plants, techniques (fire, pottery, basketry, etc.) and the wonderful fermented drink. The staging of the grain-beer couple is part of a larger cosmogony where humans move from wild to civilised life. These stories emphasise the unspontaneous character of beer. It wasn't there before humans[3]. Beer and cultivated plants are the outcome of the same creative gesture, followed by acculturation, a transformation of human society, a new social existence. A before and one after this beer-donation which signifies a pre-human stage followed by a complete humanisation.

Beer is never thought of by these societies as a banal drink found by chance on the side of a track, but as a source of humanisation. Anthropology would translate this : beer and everything that characterises its manufacture and its "socialised drinking manners" are a cultural construction specific to each human society, not a biochemical accident. A human culture must acquire a certain level of economic and social complexity in order to integrate beer as the dominant cultural drink. This complexity was reached in China and the Near East about 9,000 years ago by farming communities that were already technically and culturally advanced.

According to the archaeological data available to date, there is a chronological discrepancy between the first domestication of starchy plants and the first traces of beer, except with the Natoufians, who brewed beer 2 to 3 millennia before primitive agriculture in a region of the Fertile Crescent. The reasons for such a "backwardness" of the brewery in relation to technological conditions alone can only be relevant of social development. A Paleolithic beer that predates the first Neolithic societies becomes all the more chimerical. Beer could be one of the products (in the broadest sense) of the second Neolithic revolution (Sherrat 1987, see Bell-Beaker cultures in Europe).

So what were the Natoufians drinking in the Raqefet cave 13,000 years ago?

Beer in the technical sense (an admixture of saccharified and fermented starch), or a blended fermented drink from grains, fruit and honey? A fermented beverage similar to the one whose composition has left traces in Jiahu (China), a fermented cocktail of rice, honey and berries that was drunk by Neolithic communities 9000 years ago.

This is our working hypothesis. The first fermented beverages were admixtures of mead, beer and wine, that is an undifferentiated cocktail from honey, grains, tubers, berries and sweet fruits, the cocktail of the hunter-gatherers who collected and proceed every plant and animal resources (honey) they found. The specialised fermented beverages were later detached from this primitive base when human groups specialised themselves as farmers, horticulturists, hunters, breeders, beside those remained gatherers. It is therefore abusive to evoke the presence of "beer" before the split/specialisation of the primitive fermented cocktails into specific beverages: beers on one side, meads on the other, or wines, not forgetting the fermented dairy products which are part of this primordial base. Behind each category of beverage that has become autonomous, there are differentiated lifestyles: farmers, hunter-gatherers, honey-gatherers, horticulturists, pastoralists and breeders. However, this specialisation has not stopped the exchanges between these human groups. It has stimulated them. Yeasts, lactic acid bacteria, microscopic fungi have continued to travel from one group to another, from one fermented beverage to another for millennia.

Another aspect of the problem came from general climate studies. The hot and cold episodes (Bølling-Allerød, Dryas) that preceded the Holocene, followed by the global rise in temperatures that has characterised this period for 12,000 years, partly explains the emergence of agriculture and the Neolithic transitions in different parts of the world. An average temperature of 30°C favoured the growth of grasses and plant production of starch.

Climate and Post-Glacial expansion in the Near East



[1] This "technicality" is one of the arguments put forward by archaeologists to rule out the hypothesis of one accidental saccharification at Raqefet. The structure of the starch granules reveals germination (possibly accidental), followed by intentional heating to 60-70°C, the optimal saccharification temperature for barley or wheat. An aleatory heating ?

[2] In 1953, R. Braidwood asks his colleagues : Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grains yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread-making? One would assume that the utilization of wild cereals (along with edible roots and berries) as a source of collected food would have been in existence before their domestication (in a meaningful sense) took place. Was the subsequent impetus to this domestication bread or beer? (R. J. Braidwood et al., 1953: 515-526, American Anthropologist 55/4).
T. W. Kavanagh reopened the question in 1994 (Archaeological Parameters for the Beginnings of Beer, Brewing Techniques Sept/Oct 1994). He poses two technical prerequisites to the emergence of beer (malting fermenting pot) without providing decisive arguments. The researchers remain conditioned by the techniques of western brewing, which lead them to see in the malting of grains the unique way of brewing. This is also the case of Mary Dineley (2004, Barley, Malt and Ale in the Neolithic, 19-25). On the other hand, her experiments on malting, baking malted barley loaves, and wort production are full of insights. Her approach is cutting-edge among researchers so often immersed in book references alone. She also explores the transmission of brewing from the Ancient Near East to Europe via the Linear Pottery cultures of the Black Sea and Central Europe, a more solid ground than the eccentric Greco-Latin heritage.

[3] According to some myths, beer has its origin in an intoxicating natural beverage drunk by animals. In this case, the myth always inserts a humanising technical sequence: the beer of men imitates and at the same time modifies the spontaneous "beer" of the forest and the animal gestures. These myths, some of them etiological, are neither scientific arguments nor time machines. They only say that at the time they were transcribed by ethnologists, the link between beer and humanisation was a living concept.

23/04/2020  Christian Berger