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The experts found alcohol remains inside numerous vessels uncovered in Qiaotou archaeological site, located in Yiwu City, Zhejiang Province. The dregs were found near two human skeletons, suggesting that mourners may have consumed the brew in honour of the dead. It could be the earliest known instance of ritual beer drinking to honour the dead.
Researchers said this kind of ritual drinking may have played an important role in “maintaining social relationships and paving the way for the rise of complex farming societies four millennia later”.
In the study, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, the scientists unearthed some of “the earliest known painted pottery in the world”.
Several long-necked hu pots discovered in pits at the site contained starches, fossilised plant residue and the remains of mould and yeast, indicating that they once held a fermented alcoholic beverage.
Study lead author Jiajing Wang said: “Our results revealed that the pottery vessels were used to hold beer, in its most general sense—a fermented beverage made of rice, a grain called Job’s tears and unidentified tubers.
The mould found in the pots at Qiaotou is very similar to that which is present in koji, which is used to make sake and other fermented rice beverages in East Asia, the researchers explained.
“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 abstract-painted pottery was found in a platform mound elevated three metres above ground level – surrounded by a human-made ditch.
The study added: “No pottery of this kind has been found at any other sites dating to this time period.”
The experts believe the pots would have been held with one hand like a pint glass today.
According to the archaeologists, the findings predate earlier research, which found that mould had been used in fermentation processes 8,000 years ago in China.
Ms Wang said: “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.
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“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,” she added.
The archaeologists add that making the fermented beverage may not have been easy, since rice crops were still in their early phases of domestication during this time 9,000 years ago.
They believe most communities of this time were hunter-gatherers who relied primarily on foraging and the beer made at Qiaotou was likely a ritually significant beverage.
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