Researchers at the University of Haifa found that residents of the Carmel region were brewing beer as early as 13,000 years ago, even before the Agricultural Revolution – and thousands of years earlier than previously known

It may have occurred more or less like this:

Sitting under the oak trees on the slopes of Mount Carmel, they passed the drink between them. One after the other, they took a sip from the special, fizzy beverage, which blurred their vision and sent their thoughts drifting. They drank to commemorate their friend, who was buried earlier on a bed of flowers, and as a way to shift to a different level of consciousness, so that they could accompany him on his final journey. They drank until they fell asleep. Tomorrow morning they would have a serious headache.

Drinking alcohol, and especially sparkling drinks, such as beer, wine, and others, was common in every farming community in the world, from China to South America. As early as he 1950s, there were those who hypothesized whether the passion for beer was a main driving force in the domestication of barley and wheat in the Middle East, leading to the Agricultural Revolution. A new study, led by Prof. Dani Nadel from the University of Haifa, indicates that beer was brewed and drunk in the Carmel region as early as 13,000 years ago, even before the first domestication of plants, and thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Bread and beer without agriculture

The ancient Carmel beer brewers were members of the Natufian culture, who lived in the region of Israel 11,500 to 15,000 years ago. These were among the first humans to settle in permanent housing rather than moving around throughout the year, although they did not practice agriculture per se yet. They were hunter-gatherers, consuming wild cereals that would only be domesticated thousands of years later. The recent discovery, that these communities also grinded the cereals to make flour and bake bread, is now joined by a new study pointing at another accomplishment – the production of the first alcoholic beverage.

The evidence was found in the Raqefet Cave on the eastern Carmel ridge, not far from Daliyat al-Karmel. Excavations conducted in the cave for several decades, have revealed, among other things, graves from the Natufian period, as well as numerous craters and pits of various sizes and shapes dug in the ground or rock. The new study focused on two deep and narrow cavities found in the rock, and a third, bowl-shaped crater dug in the ground. They date back to 11,700 to 13,700 years ago.

During the study, which was a collaboration between Prof. Danny Rosenberg from the University of Haifa and Li Liu and others from Stanford University in the U.S., the researchers collected residues from the three craters and examined them. They found a large amount of starch traces, and identified in them several types of cereals – wheat, barley, and oats, as well as legumes, probably Lens orientalis and the wild ancestors of peas, nut grass, which has edible bulbs, and even Madonna Lily, known for its medicinal use.

The starch grains found in the craters were often damaged, and the researchers classified them according to the damaging process they had undergone. In the narrower craters, they found starch subjected to malting – an important process of beer brewing, during which sprouting is induced in wheat or barley grains, and then halted. In the third, wider, crater they found starch that had undergone fermentation, as well as starch with structural damage possibly caused by grinding.

Along with the starch, they also found plant fibers, at least part of which were from flax. Some of the fibers were wound and twisted in a manner indicating they were used to weave baskets. Erosion marks observed on the craters themselves may have formed from baskets being dragged up and down into them. The top edges of the narrow craters carried other marks suggesting that they had been covered. Next to one of these craters, the researchers found a stone slate, which may have served for this purpose. Other marks found in the wider crater appear to be the result of wood hitting the rock.

שרידי העמילן וסימנים נוספים חשפו את ההיסטוריה של ייצור האלכוהול. מכתשים במערת רקפת | צילום: דני נדל
Starch traces and other marks reveal the history of alcohol production. Craters in Raqefet Cave | Photograph: Dani Nadel

Worth the effort?

The researchers concluded that the craters were used for the various stages of beer brewing. The two narrow craters stored grains, including during the malting process, which were placed in baskets to facilitate insertion and removal. Their narrow structure helped to maintain a relatively cool environment. The researchers postulate that the wider crater was used for grinding the grains with a wooden pestle and for fermenting the beer.

The drink they brewed consisted mostly of cereal, supplemented with legumes and other plants, and its alcohol percentage was probably very low. A beer-lover of our time would probably not be very impressed by this beverage, but for its time, the beverage was a real wonder. Its production required the development of new methods for processing plants, as well as technologies such as the storage craters that were not known until then, and maybe contributed to the shift to sedentism.

"Digging these cavities in the rock, and then performing processes necessary for producing alcohol required considerable effort and specialization, indicating that alcohol production had ritualistic importance for the Natufian people," said Prof. Nadel. "Since they were the first to also invest significant effort in their burial rituals and ceremonies, it is plausible that alcohol production and consumption were also a part of the Natufian burial ceremonies."


Translated by Elee Shimshoni