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Bread is a dietary staple, but some cultures may have settled down so they could drink.

Adam Campbell-Schmitt
September 14, 2018

Both bread and beer are staples of many people’s diets, but if you could only choose one, which would you pick? If you went with beer, no need to feel embarrassed: Turns out beer might have been the whole reason humans started cultivating grains to begin with.

Unlike wine, which is simply fermented grape juice, the production of beer is a more involved process, making its origins especially mysterious. One theory has always been that, somewhat similar to wine coming from grapes, beer might have spawned from bread. But new research from Stanford University may support an existing but unproven counter-theory: Beer production might actually predate bread.

A team led by Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology, analyzed residues from 13,000-year-old stone mortars found in the Raqefet Cave in what is now Israel. After finding what Stanford News described as “evidence of an extensive beer-brewing operation,” the researchers now believe that the native “semi-sedentary” hunter-gathers from that time, the Natufians, might have been the world’s first brewers. “This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world,” Liu stated.

Liu notes that though these findings may change the timeline on when beer was first brewed, it doesn’t definitively answer the question of which came first, beer or bread. The Natufians are also apparently behind the world’s oldest bread, with remains found in what is now Jordan dated as being between 11,600 to 14,600 years old. Meanwhile, the recent beer evidence is likely from somewhere in the range of 11,700 to 13,700 years old. So plenty of overlap still exists.

But as their research paper states, “It has long been speculated that the thirst for beer may have been the stimulus behind cereal domestication, which led to a major social-technological change in human history; but this hypothesis has been highly controversial.” With the earliest evidence of brewing now pushed further back than ever before, one thing is for certain: Liu’s findings definitely don’t discredit that theory. Maybe humans didn’t settle down to make bread; maybe they were just looking for a good spot to open a brewery?

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