Beer Flowed Freely at Gatherings in the Jordan Valley 7,000 Years Ago

Researchers find evidence that prehistoric communities consumed the alcoholic beverage during social events

overview picture of slightly unearthed structures in sand that formed prehistoric silos
Archaeologists discovered a ceramic colander near grain silos at a dig in Israel, suggesting evidence of beer consumption in social gatherings about 7,000 years ago.  Haifa University

The next time you walk into your local bar to tip back a brew with some friends, you ought to think about the people living in the Jordan Valley some 7,000 years ago. According to archaeologists, they may have been the first social drinkers, reports Rosella Tercatin of the Jerusalem Post.

A group of international scholars examined two ceramic strainers used to strain beer that were found at a dig site last December.

The team, led by archaeologists Danny Rosenberg of Haifa University and Li Liu of Stanford University, detected residue from wheat and barley grains on ancient pottery dated to around 5000 B.C.E., per the Times of Israel. The artifacts were discovered at an ancient settlement in the central Jordan Valley of what is now Israel.

In a study published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, the researchers say the evidence shows that beer production and consumption using strainers may have occurred regularly, and that drinking the fermented beverage played an important role in social settings.

Archaeologists unearthed the strainers at digs in Tel Tsaf and the nearby burial site of Peqi‘in Cave, located in Upper Galilee. They also discovered several grain silos and large storage vats at the village, established during the Chalcolithic period—lasting from 4500 to 3500 B.C.E.—in the Levant region, suggesting beer was used for more than ritual purposes.

“We can imagine Tel Tsaf’s developing community holding large-scale events in which large quantities of food and beer are consumed in a social context—and not just in a ceremonial context,” Rosenberg, who heads the Laboratory for Ground Stone Tools Research, tells Grace Almond of the Independent.

Dated to around 7,000 years ago, one of the colanders from Tel Tsaf was found near the grain silos, per the Jerusalem Post. The second was retrieved at the burial site in Peqi’in and is about 4,500 years old. Rosenberg says both included traces of cereal and yeast, confirming they were used to strain beer.

“In the case of the Tel Tsaf finds it might be possible to see this drinking in connection with communal storage units and ritual activity, and it is tempting to suggest that the filling of the silos was connected with extensive drinking,” say the scientists, in the study. “The Peqi‘in finds point to a sepulchral context and fit well with other evidence of ritual drinking associated with burials.”

view of hilly sandy landscape where dig site is located
The archaeological site at Tel Tsaf, Israel, where researchers found evidence of social beer drinking some 7,000 years ago. Haifa University

Beer is one of the oldest drinks produced by humans, although the beverage was probably used in burial rituals before it became more widely consumed by developing societies, reports Assaf Golan for Israel Hayom.. The earliest evidence of a beer-like beverage dates to about 9,000 years ago in China.

“Beer appears to have played an important role in various social settings for communication among social groups as well as between the living and the deceased,” write Rosenberg and Liu, a professor in Chinese archaeology at Stanford, in their study.

Rosenberg believes Tel Tsaf was an important trading settlement during the Chalcolithic period, also known as the Copper Age. He says the new findings related to beer production only add to “the evidence we’ve previously uncovered of Tel Tsaf’s prosperity, expressed in its accumulation of agricultural produce, and particularly cereal, in large quantities,” per the Times of Israel.

In a study in 2014, Rosenberg reported finding signs of beer production dating back 14,000 years at a burial site on Mount Carmel in Israel. However, he believes that beverage was used only for interment rituals.

Until the Tel Tsaf discovery last year, little evidence existed of large-scale beer consumption in the Jordan Valley prior to the beginning of the Chalcolithic period, reports the Times of Israel. Exactly how and when community residents drank the beer is not known, but Rosenberg hopes to come up with answers soon.

“It’s unknown at the moment whether the beer whose remnants we found in Tel Tsaf was produced on a regular basis or specifically for major social events,” he tells the Times of Israel. “We hope that in the near future, when we can isolate further evidence of beer production at the site and at other sites, we will be able to better understand the role of alcohol in ancient societies, and particularly in those that—as in Tel Tsaf—were on the cusp of significant changes in their social structure as it became more and more complex.”