Chronological overview of archaic beers.


A single undifferentiated mixed fermented drink? Three distinct drinks produced and consumed in the same vessels or not? This alternative is very academic. Human history shows that food techniques are permeable and opportunistic, a fortiori for hunter-gatherers or horticulturists who are barely sedentary.

The available data offer a certainty. After the birth of agriculture and with a certain delay, mead, wine and beer became specialised and autonomous fermented drinks. They coexist in culturally advanced communities. This shift is not uniform across regions and continents.

The table 1 summarises the data available to date. The reliable dates are based almost exclusively on the analysis of chemical traces left by old residues of fermented beverages.

The detection of calcium oxalate (a marker of alcoholic fermentation) does not establish with certainty the production of beer (vs mead or wine). The presence of cereal remains must confirm the starchy origin of the fermented drink. But these do not exclude the joint use of other fermentable sugars (honey, juice, beans or sweet exudates). These combinations (starch/honey/fruits) are attested either in the same pottery or in different receptacles but for the same chronological horizon of the same archaeological site.


First beers and birth of the brewing by regions of the world.



Reliable dates BCE

Earliest presumed dates





 Northeastern China





Godin tepe, Shahr-i Shokhta


6000 (Syria/Anatolia)






Apodoulou, Myrthos, Chania, Chamalevri, Thèbes, Midea


2700 (Minoan)

 Europe (Spain)

La Pena, Sima, Genó


3000 (Bell-Beaker culture)

 South America

Cerro Baul, Omo

+600 à 1000

Start of our era (Mexico, Guatemala, Peru)

Table 1 : first beers and birth of the brewing by regions of the world.


The origin of beer is to be found in these mixed fermented drinks, a combination of several sweet sources: processed starch, honey, natural fruit or berry juices, sap, sweet exudates. Beer itself - in its technical definition (starch-based drink) - emerges from the common core of fermented drinks based on combined ingredients. Beer is a specialisation that has come about as a result of cultural evolution or adaptations to ecosystems. Beer does not precede mixed fermented drinks, it follows them as a specific branch, alongside wine and mead. The first beer is a myth.

Fermented beverages made from any fermentable raw material symbolize the opportunistic human strategies pursued during prehistory. The transition to the Neolithic period led human groups to specialise their economic and food strategies. Men start brewing beer when they have secure their annual reserves of starch. The differentiation of fermented beverages accompanies the forward march of human societies towards the agricultural mode of production, with all its social and cultural consequences.

Beer then becomes a key witness to irreversible technical and social changes. The reliable dates in Table 1 all refer to pre-literary societies already engaged in a process of complexification. Their techniques and lifestyles no longer resemble those of the primitive Neolithic communities. The social hierarchies are already visible there. In some cases, such as Godin Tepe (Iran) or Cerro Baul (Peru), beer seems to be the privilege and the social mark of an elite. "Drinking beer" reinforces the power to tap into the granaries on which the food survival of the entire community depends.

The column "Earliest dates presumed " in the table 1 shows older chronological milestones for the birth of brewing. These milestones are based on converging clues: proto-urbanism, advanced technologies, starchy domesticated plants, first complex societies, etc. But these evidences are not as strong as analyses of chemical markers and plant remains. They substitute for the absence of written or figurative documents.




06/09/2018  Christian Berger