The Quest for Alcohol in Ancient World

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In China, the earliest written record of alcohol appeared in oracle-bone inscriptions around 3000 years ago. Archaeological investigations, however, have pushed back the date of alcohol production several millennia. Around 9000-8000 years ago, the production of fermented beverages in specialized pottery vessels appeared as a significant component in the transition to agriculture. Since then, alcohol has been essential in ritual feasting, contributing to sociopolitical processes throughout prehistory and history. Our research has revolutionized the understanding of alcohol production and consumption in the prehistoric Yellow River valley.

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Fermented and alcoholic beverages played a pivotal role in feastings and social events in past agricultural and urban societies across the globe, but the origins of the sophisticated relevant technologies remain elusive. 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. Recently, our research team, collaborating with Israeli archaeologists, has made an important breakthrough on this subject. We have found the world's oldest archaeological evidence of beer brewing at Raqefet, a Natufian cave site in Israel, dating to 13,700-11,700 cal. BP. The beer was made of wild wheat or barley, together with other grass seeds and tubers. These innovations predated the appearance of domesticated cereals by millennia in the Near East. This discovery supports the hypothesis that in some regions, beer may have been an underlying motivation to cultivate cereals.

In China, the earliest written record of alcohol appeared in oracle-bone inscriptions around 3000 years ago. Archaeological investigations, however, have pushed back the date of alcohol production several millennia. Around 9000-8000 years ago, the production of fermented beverages in specialized pottery vessels appeared as a significant component in the transition to agriculture. Since then, alcohol has been essential in ritual feasting, contributing to sociopolitical processes throughout prehistory and history. Our research has revolutionized the understanding of alcohol production and consumption in the prehistoric Yellow River valley.

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Our research methods include microfossil and chemical residue analyses of pottery related to
alcohol brewing, experimental studies of alcohol making, and ethnographic research of
fermentation methods in different regions. By applying these methods, we have identified not
only the main ingredients of fermented beverages, but also various brewing techniques involved
– use of sprouted cereals and use of qu moldy grains as saccharification agents.

Current Projects

We are expanding the scope of our research to the southern and western regions, extending the time period to the dynastic eras in China. We are also collaborating with archaeologists in other parts of world to study ancient alcohol remains outside of China. We aim to advance our understanding about the multi-faceted functionality of alcohol and its roles in diverse social activities, including ritual feasting, medicinal practices, trade, cultural interactions, and population migrations.

​Late Neolithic

Yahui He

Shaanxi

Alcohol at Shimao

Alcohol and other plant-based food revealed by pottery assemblage at the Shimao site. In collaboration with Shaanxi Provincial Insitute of Archaeology.

​Late Neolithic

Yanan Zhao

Gansu

Dadiwan Project

Microfossil residue analysis of pottery from Dadiwan Site, Gansu, focusing on the evidence of alcohol making, collaborating with Gansu Institute of Archaeology.

Neolithic

Li LIu

 Jiajing Wang

Lower Yellow River Region

Yellow River  Valley Project

Neolithic alcohol and ritual feasting in the lower Yellow River region, China, collaborating with Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Bronze Age

Jingbo Li

Shaanxi

Zhouyuan Project

Bronze Age alcohol and diet at the Zhouyuan Site of Western Zhou Dynasty in China. In collaboration with Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.

Chalcolithic

Li LIu

 Maureece Levin

Israel

Alcohol in Holy Land

Alcohol in ceramic strainers from the Chalcolithic Holy Land, Israel, collaborating with University of Haifa, Israel.

Bronze Age

Li Liu

Yahui He

Henan

Erlitou Project

Analysis of residues on drinking vessels unearthed from elite tombs at the Erlitou site, collaborating with Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

​Late Neolithic

Suofei Feng

Li Liu

Jiajing Wang

Henan

Xipo Project

We examined micro-botanical and fungal residues of the vessels excavated from the Xipo site, collaborating with the Institute of Archaeology, CASS, and Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Zhengzhou.

Ancient Egypt

 Jiajing Wang

Hierakpnplis

Egyptian Pots Project

We are currently conducting residue analysis on pottery from Hierakonpolis, one of the most important archaeological sites for understanding the foundations of ancient Egyptian society.

https://www.hierakonpolis-online.org

Classic Maya

Ran Chen

Yahui He

Li LIu

Honduras

Copan Project

foodways and feasting at the copan site in Honduras,

collaborating with Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Bronze Age

 Jingbo Li

Henan

Yinxu Project

Alcohol production and consumption at the Yinxu site in the Shang Dynasty and the Bronze Age drinking in early China. In collaboration with Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Publications

Liu, L., 2017. Zaoqi taoqi, zhuzhou, niangjiu yu shehui fuzahua de fazhan (Early pottery, porridge, and development of social complexity). Zhongyuan Wenwu 2, 24-34.

Liu, L., Li, Y., Hou, J., 2020a. Making beer with malted cereals and qu starter in the Neolithic Yangshao culture, China. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 29, 102134.

Liu, L., Wang, J., Chen, X., Li, Y., 2019a. Huanghe zhongyou xinshiqi shidai lujiu taohu fenxi (Analysis of Neolithic pottery strainers in the middle Yellow River valley). Zhongyuan Wenwu 6, 55-61.

Liu, L., Wang, J., Chen, X., Li, Y., Zhao, H., 2018a. Yangshao wenhua dafangzi yu yanyin chuantong: Henan Yanshi Huizui yizhi F1 dimian he taoqi canliuwu fenxi (Large houses and feasting tradition of the Yangshao Culture: Starch and phytolith analyses of the residues from pottery vessels and floors of House No.1 at Huizui in Yanshi, Henan). Zhongyuan Wenwu 1, 32- 43.

Liu, L., Wang, J., Levin, M.J., Sinnott-Armstrong, N., Zhao, H., Zhao, Y., Shao, J., Di, N., Zhang, T., 2019b. The origins of specialized pottery and diverse alcohol fermentation techniques in Early Neolithic China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, 12767-12774.

Liu, L., Wang, J., Liu, H., 2020b. The brewing function of the first amphorae in the Neolithic Yangshao culture, North China. Journal of Anthropological and Archaeological Sciences 12, 118.

Liu, L., Wang, J., Zhao, H., Shao, J., Di, N., Feng, S., 2018b. Shaanxi Lantian Xinjie yizhi Yangshao wenhua wanqi taoqi canliuwu fenxi: niangzao guyajiu de xinzhengju (Residue analyses on pottery from the late Yangshao Culture site of Xinjie in Lantian, Shaanxi: New Evidence of beer brewing). Nongye Kaogu 1, 7-15.

Liu, L., Wang, J., Zhao, Y., Yang, L., 2017. Yangshao wenhua de guyajiu: jiemi Yangguanzhai yizhi de taoqi gongneng (Beer in the Yangshao Culture: decoding the function of pottery at the Yangguanzhai site). Nongye Kaogu 6, 26-32.

Wang, J., Liu, L., Ball, T., Yu, L., Li, Y., Xing, F., 2016. Revealing a 5,000-y-old beer recipe in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 6444-6448.

About Us

We are a team of archaeologists discovering ancient food cultures around the world.

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