Beer was an important part of funerary rituals in China as far back as 9,000 years ago.
Most of us have attended at least one wake during our lives, those post-funeral rituals in which we raise a glass or two in honour of family and friends who have passed beyond the veil.
What most of us don’t realise however is that this ritual can be traced back to the very beginning of human society. In fact, a new study by archaeologists in southern China has traced back similar rituals as far back as 9,000 years.
The study, based on findings from an investigation of recently discovered drinking pots at a burial site in Qiaotou in southern China, reveals that not only have people been raising a post-funeral glass or two in honour of the dead for thousands of years but that the act of drinking alcoholic beverages has played a significant socio-cultural function from ancient times.
The findings, reported in the scientific journal Plos One, also make the site one of the oldest in the world for early beer drinking.
The ancient pots were discovered in a huge platform mound that measures 80 metres by 50 metres wide and stands more than three metres above ground level. The mound is surrounded by a human-constructed ditch that is 10-15 metres wide and up to two metres deep.
Furthermore, in an indication that the site is ritualistic in nature, investigators found no residential structures at the site.
The mound contained two human skeletons and multiple pottery pits with high-quality pottery vessels, many of which were complete vessels. The pottery was painted with white slip and some of the vessels were decorated with abstract designs.
As the study reports, these artefacts are probably some of “the earliest known painted pottery in the world.” No pottery of this kind has been found at any other sites dating to this period.
The research team analysed different types of pottery found at Qiaotou, which were of varying sizes. Some of the pottery vessels were relatively small and similar in size to drinking vessels used today, and to those found in other parts of the world. Each of the pots could basically be held in one hand like a cup unlike storage vessels, which are much larger in size. Seven of the 20 vessels, which were part of their analysis, appeared to be long-necked Hu pots, which were used to drink alcohol in the later historical periods.
To confirm that the vessels were used for drinking alcohol, the research team analysed microfossil residues— starch, phytolith (fossilized plant residue), and fungi, extracted from the interior surfaces of the pots. The residues were compared with control samples obtained from soil surrounding the vessels.
The team identified micro-botanical (starch granules and phytoliths) and microbial (mould and yeast) residues in the pots that were consistent with residues from beer fermentation and are not found naturally in soil or in other artefacts unless they had contained alcohol.
“Through a residue analysis of pots from Qiaotou, our results revealed that the pottery vessels were used to hold beer, in its most general sense— a fermented beverage made of rice (Oryza sp.), a grain called Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and unidentified tubers,” says Jiajing Wang, assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College in the United States and co-author of the published study.
“This ancient beer though would not have been like the IPA that we have today. Instead, it was likely a slightly fermented and sweet beverage, which was probably cloudy in colour.”
The results also showed that phytoliths of rice husks and other plants were also present in the residue from the pots. They may have been added to the beer as a fermentation agent.
Although the Yangtze River Valley of southern China is known today as the country’s rice heartland, the domestication of rice occurred gradually between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago, so 9,000 years ago, rice was still in the early stage of domestication. At that time, most communities were hunter-gatherers who relied primarily on foraging. As the researchers explain in the study, given that rice harvesting and processing was labour intensive, the beer at Qiaotou was probably a ritually significant drink/beverage.
The residue analysis of the pots also showed traces of mould, which was used in the beermaking process. The mould found in the pots at Qiaotou was very similar to the mould present in koji, which is used to make sake and other fermented rice beverages in East Asia.
Beer is technically any fermented beverage made from crops through a two-stage transformation process. In the first phase, enzymes transform starch into sugar (saccharification). In the second phase, the yeasts convert the sugar into alcohol and other states like carbon dioxide (fermentation). As the researchers explain in the study, mould acts kind of like an agent for both processes, by serving as a saccharification-fermentation starter.
“We don’t know how people made the mould 9,000 years ago, as fermentation can happen naturally,” says Jiajing Wang. “If people had some leftover rice and the grains became mouldy, they may have noticed that the grains became sweeter and alcoholic with age. While people may not have known the biochemistry associated with grains that became mouldy, they probably observed the fermentation process and leveraged it through trial and error.”
Given that the pottery at Qiaotou was found near the burials in a non-residential area, the researchers conclude that the pots of beer were likely used in ritualistic ceremonies relating to the burial of the dead. They speculate that ritualized drinking may have been integral to forging social relationships and cooperation, which served as a precursor to complex rice farming societies that emerged 4,000 years later.