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Discovery of ancient breweries offers clues of primitive lifestyle

Evidence of ancient breweries stir debate about whether first grain cultivation was for making beer or bread. (John Mauser/Associated Press)

Several new archaeological finds suggest that alcohol has been a social glue in parties, from work festivals to cultic feasts, since the dawn of civilization.

In the December issue of the journal Antiquity, archaeologists describe evidence of nearly 11,000-year-old brewing troughs at a feasting site in Turkey. And archaeologists in Cyprus have unearthed the 3,500-year-old ruins of what may have been a primitive brewery and feasting hall. The excavation, described in the November issue of the journal Levant, revealed several kilns that may have been used to dry malt before fermentation.

The findings suggest that alcohol has been a social lubricant for ages, said Lindy Crewe, an archaeologist who co-authored the Levant paper.

While the cultivation of grain clearly transformed humanity, why it first happened has been hotly contested.

“This debate has been going on since the 1950s: Is the first cultivation of grain about making beer, or is it about making bread?” Crewe said.

Some researchers suggest that beer arose 11,500 years ago and drove the cultivation of grains. Because grains require so much work to produce (collecting tiny, mostly inedible parts, separating grain from chaff, and grinding into flour), making beer would have been reserved for feasts with important cultural purposes.

Those feasts — and alcohol-induced friendliness — may have enabled hunter-gatherers to bond with people in newly emerging villages, fueling the rise of civilization. At work parties, beer may have motivated people to put a little elbow grease into bigger projects such as building monuments.

“Production and consumption of alcoholic beverages is an important factor in feasts facilitating the cohesion of social groups, and in the case of [the Turkish site], in organizing collective work,” wrote Oliver Dietrich, a co-author of the Antiquity paper, in an e-mail. Dietrich is an archaeologist for the German Archaeological Institute.

The site in Cyprus includes a courtyard and hall, along with jugs, mortars, grinding tools and, crucially, several kilns that Crewe and her colleagues believe were used to toast barley for a primitive beer. To test their hypothesis, the team replicated the kilns to produce malted barley and used it in a cloudy and slightly weird-tasting beer, Crewe told LiveScience.

At the Turkish site, Neolithic hunter-gatherers worshiped deities through dancing and feasting at the temple site, which is filled with pillars carved with animal shapes and other cultic designs. The site also had what appears to be a primitive kitchen with limestone troughs that held up to 42 gallons of liquid. The troughs held traces of oxalates, which are produced during the fermentation of grain into alcohol.

At both sites, the idea of a beer-soaked party must have been a real treat, Crewe said.

“There must have been a real sense of anticipation within the community when you knew a big beer event was coming up,” she said.


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