The recent discoveries of archaic beers in the world.



The words « Archaic beers » or « First beers » here refer to the oldest beers that can be scientifically identified to date in a well-studied archaeological context (scientific dating, methodical stratigraphy, material culture described). Depending on the regions of the world, archaeologists are likely to back up the dates given below in a chronological-summary. We are not talking here about the original beer, the mother of all beers, mythical in our opinion.


The expression archaic beers  implies that THE  BEER  does not exist, even though language and our mind lead us to believe it. The birth of beer has been enacted in every region of the world, in an indigenous context and with indigenous processes. There are as many primitive beers as areas of origin, about twenty (Brewing basins in history).

The technical, economic and social contexts in which primitive fermented beverages are born in various parts of the world have been identified thanks to archaeological excavations, archaeobotanical research, and archaeobiochemical techniques. These remarkable works make it possible to go beyond the stage of naïve hypotheses. The oldest human cultures that brewed beer had already passed the social and technical stage of the Neolithic period. With an important reservation on this last point: the recent discovery of beer brewed by the Natufians in Jordan-Palestine 13,000 years ago (Raqefet cave) shows that the brewing of beer predates the domestication of cereals in this part of the world. Mead or wild fruit wines (simple, spontaneously fermented drinks made from wild fruits) are available to hunter-gatherer societies. Beer involves the cultivation, storage and social management of starchy plant resources, in other words more evolved social structures matching the mastery of agriculture or horticulture.

On four continents, excavation projects have unearthed whole pottery or shards impregnated with the residues of their ancient liquid content. The Near East (Iran-Iraq), Egypt, China, Bolivia, Greece, Spain and finally Northern Europe have provided valuable information about their ancient fermented beverages.

Specialists analyze these chemical traces and starch remnants with sophisticated technologies[1]. They manage to isolate, in most cases, groups of preserved residual molecules. They identify the original biochemical complexes, and the plant, animal or mineral sources used and transformed, as well as their by-products. Calcium oxalate is a marker for the alcoholic fermentation of sugars from starch, a reliable indication of the ancient presence of beer.Another method analyzes under a scanning electron microscope tiny starch granules deformed and transformed by enzymes specific to the brewing process (amylases to saccharify the starch, and enzyme complex of the alcoholic fermentation) or by cooking (gelatinization). The distortions of the starch granules characterize both the work of the amylases, the temperature, and PH conditions (acidity). For example, they make it possible to differentiate an accidental or intentional deformation of the starch granules.

On their side, archaeobotanists reconstruct the ancient local flora, determine the buried plant species and decide on their degree of domestication: morphological analysis, study of pollens, phytoliths, remains of microorganisms (fungi, yeasts), genetic analysis.

Lastly, archaeologists map out the stratigraphy of excavated sites, date them (c14 datation and others methods), and restore the technical and cultural development of vanished societies. The function or form of the material found (jars, ovens, furnaces, fireplaces, filters, grinders, drinking tubes, cups, etc.) can sometimes identify without error a brewery workshop, brewing tools, or the tableware used for beer.


This triple set of data sheds new light on the early days of brewing and puts the investigation on scientific ground. The results accumulated over the last few decades provide solid foundations for the protohistory of beer.

The presentation of archaic beers follows the chronological order of the beer remains, from the oldest (Raqefet in the Near East) to the most recent (Cero Baul in Bolivia). This does not correspond to the chronology of the discoveries that begin with Godin Tepe (P. McGovern ) and Armana/Deir-el-Medina (D. Samuel) in 1992-93 and end (provisionally) in 2020 with Banpo and Jiangzhai on the Yellow River (Li Liu et al.).

The discovery of an ancient Egyptian brewery by J. Geller in Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt) and that of M. Moseley in Cerro Baul (Bolivia) have been included in this series, the former because it describes the oldest evidence of the brewery on the Nile, the latter for the same reason in the Andes Cordillera. These discoveries are the result of classical archaeological excavations, without any scientific analysis of the brewing residues.



[1] Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), electron microscopy (EM). It is also worth mentioning the increasingly frequent use of experimental archaeology, which reproduces ancient technical processes with modern means to define the most important technical parameters and test working hypotheses. Beer archaeology has systematised experimental brewing by trying out multiple sources of starch and combining various brewing methods in order to observe the characteristic deformations of the starch granules. In 1993, Delwen Samuel pioneered this field with the analysis of shards dating from the New Kingdom in Egypt.

06/09/2018  Christian Berger