The base of the primitive fermented beverages.


The results achieved at Jiahu in China (Jiahu -6500) and on more recent Neolithic sites in the Huang-He basin (Neolithic beers in China) raise a delicate issue. The residues of fermented beverage aged between 7000 and 3000 BC point to a very heterogeneous composition. It includes starch (millet, rice, tubers, beans) but also honey, berries and roots (ginger) which describes a fermented beverage that is a mixture of beer, mead and wine! A similar observation occurs in the ancient Near East, Egypt, Europe or South America for comparable Neolithic transitions. The existence of these hybrid fermented beverages pursued after the various Neolithic eras in the world, during their respective Bronze Ages.

Does a strict technical definition of beer match the protohistoric period of these fermented beverages ? Can a fermented beverage made from a mixture of rice, fruit and honey be called beer ?

The scientific accuracy dictates a negative answer. Analyses of archaeological beverage residues determine their composition with increasing precision, but the exact proportion of raw ingredients stays unknown. We therefore ignore whether starch accounts or not for the majority of the overall composition of archaic fermented beverages. The archaeological context helps to clarify whether it is an entirely agricultural society producing and storing reserves of starch, or whether the gathering and collection of wild plants and honey still dominates the diet. Only in the first case can the brewing of the beer be deduced.

This lexical clarification masks a more interesting, more technical question. It concerns the origin of beer and, more broadly, the social mechanisms which explain why beer has become the most widespread fermented beverage of the planet in so different cultures and civilisations.


The original base for fermented beverages.

The technical and prehistoric origin of fermented beverages may be hidden in these primitive combinations from the Chinese Neolithic period, 9000 years ago. Similar fermented beverages have been detected in Crete, Spain and Bolivia (Archaic beers). Blend any raw materials seems to be the favorite recipe of these primitive fermented beverages. At the end of the Palaeolithic and even during the Neolithic period, mankind gathered everything that could provide food and drink, according to the seasons and human mobility. The formula for fermented beverages is a blend in the same natural receptacle (gourd, vegetable pot, wooden trough, rocky cavity, etc.) of everything that can ferment, of all the plants, honeys and sweet exudates collected by highly mobile and opportunistic pickers. Differentiating these primitive cocktails into beer, wine and mead would be anachronistic.

This initial fermented melting-pot split later into specific fermented beverages (beer, mead, wine), as a result of the technical and cultural evolution of the Neolithic period. Cultural complexity, technical mastery and the second Neolithic revolution resulted in a specialisation of fermented beverages, their uses and their production patterns. The birth of beer requires settled human groups who are sure to get renewable supplies of starch throughout the year, whatever their nature (grains, tubers, starchy fruits, etc.). It can be argued that all beers, wines, meads and fermented milks come from an initial base of undifferentiated fermented beverages. This pattern applies also to wine before its specialisation in different kinds of wine : fruit wines, berry wines, palm wines, agave wines, sap wines, ... and the modern domination of grape wine. The same protohistoric process goes for mead, which became a specialised beverage with the rise and subsequent mastery of beekeeping. Regarding the alcoholic fermented milks, the protohistoric processes of their evolution seem very complex and are still little studied. Their influence on the evolution of grain-based fermented beverages is immense. On the one hand, lactic and butyric fermentations have always crossed with alcoholic fermentation. On the other hand, the acidification of beer brews by lactic acid bacteria promotes the saccharification of starch.


The problem that remains to be solved is how and when the 4 main families of fermented beverages (beer, mead, wine, milk) were gradually developed and separated from the initial base of hybrid beverages some 9,000 to 5,000 years ago. Archaeological data and analyses of archaic fermented beverages have been accumulating for several decades. They mainly concern the regions of the Fertile Crescent (West Asia), Egypt, northern China, Europe and the Andes Cordillera. Vast areas of the globe remain virtually unexplored from this perspective (Black Africa, Central Asia, India, South-East Asia, Central and South America, Pacific zone). A general picture of the development of starch-based fermented beverages can only be provisional.

Regional chronologies remain poorly assured. While the Neolithic plays a key role in the differentiation of fermented beverages, there are as many Neolithic and protohistoric periods as there are major river basins in the world. The Neolithic transitions of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, the Huang-He and Yangtze, the Indus and the Ganges, for example, can be compared. Beyond these great rivers and their valleys, horticulturists live in vast forests and consume fermented beverages of which little is known other than that they come from wild honey, fruits, tubers grown with slash and burnt culture (manioc, yam, taro, sweet potato, etc.) or the starchy marrow of the trunks of sago trees or plantains.

The tropical band that surrounds the planet (15° N. and S. of the equator) is the domain of fermented beverages based on tubers that constitute the main plant food resource. However, these beers are often supplemented with fruit, honey, sap or palm juice. They keep track of the common base of the original mixed fermented beverages, probably because the way of life of the indigenous peoples who consume them has not become hyper-specialised like that of the hierarchical societies that border their world. For example, the Amerindian tribes of the Amazon springs, who are great consumers of manioc beers, frequented the Inca empire before the arrival of the conquistadors, which had specialised in the production of beer made from maize, quinoa or potatoes for several centuries (Pre-incaïc kingdoms in the Andes).

The slow process of specialisation of fermented beverages is clearly dependent on ecosystems, social developments and political structures. The understanding of this regional process is still in its infancy and requires case-by-case studies. In the following pages we attempt an inventory.


The specialisation of brewing methods.

Another, later specialisation operates within the family of beers when it has separated itself from the 3 other families of fermented beverages (mead, wine, milk). This historical specialisation concerns brewing methods, specifically the process used to convert raw starch into fermentable sugars. There are 6 different ones: 1) insalivation 2) amylolytic ferments 3) malting 4) amylolytic plants 5) acid hydrolysis 6) overmaturation (The 6 beer brewing Pathways). At the origin of beer, when it becomes a standalone beverage, these processes are jointly used to brew the beer. There does not seem to be any technical preference for one or the other, except that some, such as malting (germination of cereal grains), cannot be applied to the processing of starchy tubers or husked rice. The historical documents and archaeological data show that in all regions of the world these 6 brewing methods have been known for millennia and still coexist in some regions today. In modern societies and recent times, one of them can marginalise the other techniques one or two millennia ago depending on the case, or even more recently when the malting method accompanied the European colonial conquests 500 years ago and imposed itself in the world, without however making the other methods disappear.

This process of specialisation of brewing methods within the family of beers has its own history and its own logic which it is not always possible to trace. The spread and cultivation of new starchy food plants around the world 500 years ago seems to have played a major role in the landscape of traditional brewing methods in Africa, Asia and America. In earlier times, the spread of rice cultivation was a major factor in the evolution of brewing methods in South-East Asia, India, Java-Sumatra and the Philippines by promoting the technique of amylolytic ferments.

Specialisation in brewing methods does not correspond to geographical specialisation. The American continent cut off from Asia 14,000 years ago was populated by hunter-gatherers. The Neolithic transition was not purely American. One cannot envisage a late diffusion of brewing techniques from Asia. The American peoples nevertheless developed, as on the other continents, the 6 brewing methods. Similarly, social changes in certain regions of the American continent have favoured a brewing technique such as corn malting (Inca empire, northern Mexico), in competition with insalivation (Amazonia) and amylolytic ferments (Caribbean zone).

We can outline the general evolution of fermented beverages since Neolithic times and the specialisation of brewing methods.

Socle_primitif_boissons_fermentéesThe differentiation of fermented beverages and then that of the brewing methods of beer.


Such a general scheme needs to be supported by regional historical studies to verify its validity. The available data allow a closer look at several brewery global regions.

In the following pages, we go into detail about several beer brewing basins:

  1. Chinese beer brewing basin
  2. Indian beer brewing basin
  3. Mesopotamian beer brewing basin
  4. European beer brewing basin
  5. African beer brewing basin
  6. Andean beer brewing basin

The most advanced current research concerns the protohistory of beer in China, Europe, South-West Asia and the Andes Cordillera. This results from the efforts of archaeological teams in these regions of the world. The poor relatives are Africa, Central Asia, South-East Asia and the rest of America, including North America. This does not imply that these regions did not harbour a prehistory of beer. The opposite is even assured for Africa or Central Asia.But there is not enough data to reconstruct a protohistory, even in its broad outlines.



08/11/2020  Christian Berger