University of Haifa Zinman Institute of Archeology’s Prof. Danny Rosenberg on Tuesday reported the first evidence in the ancient Middle East of beer consumption in the Chalcolithic site of Tel Tsaf Chalcolithic, whose age is estimated at about 7,200 years.
“To the evidence we have found to date for the wealth that characterized the residents of Tel Tzaf, which was expressed in the storage of agricultural produce and especially large-scale storage of cereals, we now added evidence of the production and consumption of alcohol – beer made from cereals,” said Prof. Rosenberg, who led the research together with scientists from Stanford University and the German Institute in Berlin.
“One can imagine how the emerging society of Tsaf held major events in which food and large quantities of beer were consumed in a social context—and not in a strictly ceremonial context,” said Prof. Rosenberg.
In the present study, the researchers examined microscopic starch grains of wheat and barley found in various pottery vessels in Tel Tsaf that contained filters and found that the grains underwent a molecular change in a fermentation process, indicating that they had actually undergone a process of fermentation and the production of beer. According to the researchers, the evidence for the existence of a stable social and economic system in Tel Tsaf is well connected with the evidence for alcohol production.
“The existence of such a system often depends on ‘routine maintenance,’ which has often included increased alcohol consumption,” the researchers said.
The earliest evidence of beer consumption was found at the Natopian burial site in the Rakefet Cave in the Carmel mountains, from about 14,000 years ago. In a study published in 2014, researchers from the University of Haifa found evidence of beer consumption—alcohol fermented from grains—in the context of Natopian burial rites. According to Prof. Rosenberg, who was also part of the 2014 study, the evidence for beer consumption in the Levant has been very fragmentary and almost non-existent – although only a few centuries later beer would become very common in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The Chalcolithic settlement at Tel Tsaf, which flourished during the Chalcolithic period 7200 years ago in the Jordan Valley, was very large, inhabited by hundreds of people. Tel Tsaf is unique as it was one of the very few communities in our area during the period that saw a transition from agricultural societies with small villages to budding urban communities.
To date, researchers have found evidence that the settlement flourished exceptionally for several centuries during which its inhabitants accumulated agricultural produce of exceptional proportions and even forged extensive trade ties with areas many hundreds of miles away, in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, and even Anatolia in today’s Turkey, and beyond.
According to the researchers, the production and consumption of beer did not cease after the Natopian period, in which societies of hunter-gatherers were beginning to settle down permanently and engage in primary agriculture. After all, beer production did not emerge spontaneously in the Bronze Age in the ancient Middle Eastern kingdoms.
The new discovery was made possible in Tel Tsaf due to the site’s excellent preservation conditions which allowed various organic materials to remain exceptionally preserved.
“It is difficult to know at the moment whether the beer produced in the remnants of the process we identify in Tel Tsaf was consumed daily or only in large social events in which all or most of the community members participated, but the accumulation of evidence from the excavations at the site, which testifies to extraordinary wealth and prosperity, is now also linked to the production and drinking of beer,” said Prof. Rosenberg.
“We hope that soon, when we succeed in isolating further evidence for the production of beer in this and other sites, we could take a closer look at the role of alcohol in ancient societies and especially these, like the community that lived in Tel Tsaf, who were facing significant changes in their social organization which was becoming increasingly complex,” he said.