History brewed something very special Evidence of dark, sweet beer 5,100 years ago in Iran

November 05, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA -- A team of researchers has discovered the earliest known chemical evidence of beer drinking in the world.

On shards of pottery unearthed in western Iran, they have found residues of beer brewed at least 5,100 years ago -- even before people learned to write.

"This finding shows that beer is a central part of the earliest civilizations," said Patrick McGovern, an archaeological chemist at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It may have been one of the major incentives that convinced people to settle down."

Before then, he said, "the earliest known beer vessel had been found in Egypt" dating from about 4,000 years ago.

The findings are being announced in today's issue of Nature, a British scientific journal.

Virginia Badler, a co-author of the article, said the ancient beer was probably sweeter, darker, more nutritious and less alcoholic than today's beers. It may have been made with dates and honey, the researchers believe.

It was an "everyman's drink," Mr. McGovern said, that provided a year-round source of food for people in Sumeria, the ancient civilization that sprang up on the fertile plain formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

"It probably was an essential part of that civilization," said Ms. Badler, a graduate student at the University of Toronto. "It probably was preferable to water for those who could get it."

Ms. Badler said that chemically testing residues on ancient plates, cups, containers and other utensils might make it possible to learn more about the eating and drinking habits of early civilizations.

"We may now be able to learn much more about the early history of food," she said.

The story of this discovery began in 1988, when Ms. Badler was examining about 80 buff-colored shards of pottery in a storeroom on the sixth floor of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. She noticed that the shards had slashes on them that looked very much like lines on ancient Sumerian symbols for beer. She wondered if they might have been part of a beer jug.

But it was not until 1990 that she found a way to test her hypothesis.

In that year, she published a paper with Mr. McGovern and Rudolph Michel, another University Museum scientist, announcing the discovery of the world's earliest known wine. Using chemical tests they showed that reddish stains on the bottom of a 5,000-year-old jug unearthed in Godin Tepe, an archaeological site in central western Iran, were wine residues.

A colleague suggested that it might be possible to test for beerstone, a beer-making residue, on the shards she had examined.

So, she reached Mr. McGovern and Mr. Michel at the University Museum and they agreed to test a pale yellow residue found on grooves. For comparison, the scientists also used the test on samples taken from an ancient Egyptian beer container and a modern beer vessel at the Dock Street Brewing Co. in Philadelphia.

The tests confirmed that the residues from each of the vessels contained calcium oxalate, a major component of beerstone, which settles out during the fermentation and storage of beer.

Mr. McGovern said further chemical tests also might answer the question: "Which came first -- bread or beer?"

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