A team of researchers performing excavations at an ancient burial site in southcentral China have found proof that people were drinking rice beer there 9,000 years ago . This drinking wouldn’t have been recreational, but would have been included as a part of ritual celebrations organized to honor the dead.
This was a surprising discovery, since other findings have indicated that alcohol-making and consumption didn’t become widespread in China until much later.
The research team, which includes archaeologists and anthropologists from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, unearthed 20 ancient ceramic pots while digging in an elevated mound located at a burial site known as Qiaotou in China’s Zhejiang province. Detailed chemical testing showed the pots still contained microscopic traces of alcohol-related substances, which revealed they’d been filled with alcohol in the distant past.
Map of Qiaotou. (Map courtesy of PLoS ONE )
Rice Beer Residue Detected
“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, a grain called Job’s Tears, and unidentified tubers,” explained anthropologist and study co-author Jiajing Wang in a Dartmouth College news release . “This ancient beer though would not have been like the IPA [India pale ale] that we have today. Instead, it was likely a slightly fermented and sweet beverage, which was probably cloudy in color.”
The analysis also found the remains of rice husks, mold, and other plants mixed in with the alcohol residue. These substances likely would have been used as fermentation agents in the rice beer-making process.
Raising a Cup to the Dearly Departed
The elevated mound at Qiaotou was set off and surrounded by a massive ditch, which was between five and 6.5 feet (1.5 to two meters) deep and between 32 and 49 feet (10 and 15 meters) wide. Its identity as a burial mound was confirmed when the researchers unearthed the remains of two human skeletons, who were presumably powerful or highly respected individuals given the effort that was put into keeping their graves separate from any other burials in the area.
Human burial 1 (M44) is one of the archaeological features from Qiaotou platform mound. (© 2021 Wang et al., Dartmouth College / PLoS ONE )
In many ancient societies , it was common to use alcohol in community celebrations, ritual feasts, and to honor the memory of the recently deceased. At Qiaotou, the drinking vessels used during the ceremony marking the passing of these two individuals was buried right with them, leaving behind clear-cut evidence of what had taken place for future archaeologists to find.
“The beer at Qiaotou was likely served in rituals to commemorate the burial of the dead. Ritualized drinking probably played an integrative role in maintaining social relationships, paving the way for the rise of complex farming societies four millennia later.”
As for the pottery itself, it was clearly customized for its intended purpose.
Beer Drinking Paraphernalia
Several of the pottery vessels were small and shaped to be used as hand-held drinking cups. Seven of the 20 were in the form of Hu pots, which are specialized vessels known to have been used for alcohol consumption in later years. These larger pots featured narrow necks, globular bodies, and flaring rims, and could have been passed around from person to person during ceremonies.
Long-necked Hu vessel. (© 2021 Wang et al., Dartmouth College / PLoS ONE )
The pottery was painted with white slip (a type of clay slurry) and decorated with various abstract designs. This makes it some of the earliest painted pottery ever found, the researchers stated in the PLoS One article, and represents the first time pottery like this has been found at a site dating as far back as 9,000 years ago.
Great care was taken to prepare these fine items, giving researchers more reason to believe they were created for a very special purpose.
A Moldy Practice Slowly Perfected
During their chemical analysis, the researchers found residues of mold on the inside of the pottery vessels. This would have been a primary substance used to boost the fermentation process. The mold found in the Qiaotou pots was of a similar type to that found in koji, a fungus used to make sake (rice wine) and other fermented rice drinks in East Asia in the modern age.
Beer-related microfossil remains.(a) Rice starch granules; (b) A starch granule from an unidentified USO; (c) A starch granule from Job’s tears, showing a characteristic Z-shaped arm; (d) A double-peak phytolith from rice husk; (e) Yeast cells in budding process; (f) and (g) vesicle/sporangia without phialides/spores attached, compared with Aspergillus oryzae in Fig 6 ; (h) Black sporangia connecting to sporangiophores. (© 2021 Wang et al., Dartmouth College / PLoS ONE )
The mold was an especially interesting find, since previous research indicated that mold had only been used for fermentation in China starting 8,000 years ago. Which raises the question, how did the beermakers at Qiaotou find out about the usefulness of mold so much earlier than alcohol producers elsewhere?
“If people had some leftover rice and the grains became moldy, they may have noticed that the grains became sweeter and alcoholic with age,” Jiajing Wang speculated. “While people may not have known the biochemistry associated with grains that became moldy, they probably observed the fermentation process and leveraged it through trial and error.”
If this was their pathway to discovery, they may have relied on fermentation to sweeten the flavor of rice initially, before finding out later that it could also be used to make a tasty beverage.
The Beer Makers of Qiaotou: A Rare Breed?
It’s reasonable to conclude that knowledge about rice fermentation and alcohol making was likely not widespread in China 9,000 years ago. The domestication of rice in China’s fertile Yangtze River Valley was a continual process that began about 8,000 BC and continued for at least another 4,000 years. In 7,000 BC rice domestication was still a relatively new practice, and many communities that were growing it wouldn’t have had time to learn much about what rice could be used to make .
At this point in time, the hunting-gathering lifestyle was still predominant in China. Rice crops would have been grown as a supplemental food source, not as a staple of the ancient Chinese diet. The harvesting and processing of rice were highly labor-intensive practices in general, and when alcohol production was involved it would have taken even more time and labor—time and labor that might otherwise be spent on more traditional food collecting activities.
Consequently, beermaking at Qiaotou was likely a specialized activity that was only pursued by a few people on a part-time basis, in order to produce sacred beverages for important religious ceremonies. This is the conclusion of the Dartmouth College researchers, but they are open to changing their minds if further excavations in the area produce evidence of more widespread alcohol consumption.
Top image: Painted pottery vessels (from Qiaotou platform mound) for serving drinks, rice beer and food. Source: © 2021 Wang et al., Dartmouth College / PLoS ONE
By Nathan Falde