Offbeat Science: When the thirst for beer encourages agriculture

Social science news about this summer, World Cup football requires, the beer has flowed freely. But have you ever wondered since when beer is an integral part of our societal rituals? According to archaeologists from Stanford University, one would have to go back far … far back in time. Beyond even perhaps the birth of agriculture!

Liters of beer gushing from the glasses of English fans. During the last World Cup 2018 football, the image has been around social networks. As further proof, if any were needed, that beer is an integral part of certain “rituals” of our modern society. T his summer in Europe, we have even for a moment dreaded the shortage! Here you can read more about science news feeds.

And according to a discovery made by archaeologists from Stanford University (USA), this particular place we make for beer is not new. No, the invention of beer did not necessarily result from surplus agricultural production. The beer has been devised for ritual purposes and spiritual needs. “To some extent at least, before the deployment of agriculture,” says Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archeology at Stanford University.

With her team, she discovered, in a cave around Haiffa (Israel), evidence that the Natufians already mastered the art of the brewery in their time – about 11,700 to 13,700 years ago. Oh, make no mistake anyway. Because the beers of the time did not look so much like those we like to enjoy today when temperatures rise a little too much.


Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted by Stanford University archaeologists (left) are compared to references that Liu and his research have reproduced in their beer brewing experiments. © Li Liu, Stanford University

Who beer or bread?

In those early days, the beer was to be in the form of a mixture – of the porridge type – of several cereals. What Stanford archaeologists have found are starch residues and microscopic particles of plants called phytoliths, which are characteristic of turning wheat and barley into alcohol.

According to the researchers, the Natufians proceeded in three stages to make the beer. First, wheat – or barley – had to be made into malt by sprouting it in water and then drying it. Then the malt was crushed and heated. Finally, the malt fermented under the action of a wild yeast suspended in the air. A theory they have verified by a series of laboratory experiments.

What revive a theory in the air of the past few decades. It argues that, more than the invention of bread, it is that of beer that has encouraged the development of cereals. Bread or beer, whatever it may be, it seems that the Natufians are to be thanked. Because it is on another site that archaeologists were able to discover also the oldest remains of bread.

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