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Did the Croods kick back with a beer? This is how you unearth Stone Age brews

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May 12, 2020

We've seen a faded mural that shows an ancient Egyptian pharaoh throwing back a brew in the afterlife, but how can you find out if people were drinking the stuff as far back as the late Stone Age?

Beer is almost as old as humans are. While the Croods certainly had some primitive ideas, like fire being an embryonic Sun ignited on Earth, that doesn't mean Stone Age people missed out on a foamy mug. Relics like those Egyptian murals may show that some obviously enjoyed it so much they wanted to bring it with them to the hereafter. Now a team of scientists led by archaeobotanist Andreas G. Heiss from the Austrian Archaeological Institute have come up with a method of identifying the highly processed grain malt that tells you if Neolithic beer (or some other booze) was here.

“[Beer’s] ritual and dietary role has been extensively investigated in ancient states with written and iconographic records but our knowledge of the occurrence and manufacture of ancient beer is highly incomplete,” said Heiss in a study recently published in PLOS One. “Tracking beer in the archaeological record as precisely as possible would therefore result in fundamentally novel insights on human societies in the past.”

Back when clean water was not always a thing, and modern medicine was definitely not a thing, it was much more hygienic to drink beer, since the brewing process involves sterilization through heat. The problem is that trying to find actual evidence of beer production from the distant past doesn’t always go down as smoothly as a cold one.

Heiss’ method seeks out grain malt, which reveals proof of malting, the first phase of producing beer. Malting happens when grains such as wheat or barley are dried and roasted after being steeped in water and germinated. When these grains sprout, the cell walls of aleurone — or protein stored in the endosperm of a seed — grow thinner. Malted grains ground beyond recognition can still be detected in ancient charred remains that have thin aleurone cell walls. Heiss and his team used a scanning electron microscope to observe barley grains that were malted in a lab, then compared them to ancient residue. This is how they were able to find traces of beer brewing from about 6,000 years ago.

Predynastic Egyptian breweries and German lakeshore settlements dating back to the Late Neolithic period brewed that prehistoric beer. Burnt malt residue was found in ceramic brewing vats at Hierakonopolis and Tell el-Farkha in Egypt. Beer production there was proven when that residue showed the same thin aleurone cell walls as the lab-produced malt. The team saw similar results with residue from Neolithic cups discovered at the Sipplingen-Osthafen and Hornstaad-Hörnle sites in Germany. Though malting in the German samples was visible, there had been a raging fire that charred this malt. Whether it would have been fermented into alcohol remains unknown.

“In archaeology, the statement 'We have evidence of beer!' has far-reaching consequences for the materials concerned, for the respective contexts and sites and even beyond,’” Heiss said.

For anyone hesitant about brewing their own beer, if they could do it during the Stone Age, so can you.


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