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Dead serious drinking

Evidence for 9,000 year-old funerary beer found in Southern China.

Alcoholic beverages have long had important ritual associations at ceremonies such as funerals and ritual feasts. Excavations at a burial site at Qiaotou in southern China have produced convincing evidence of funerary beer drinking 9,000 years ago.

Two males were found buried in a platform mound some 80m by 50m, standing 3m above the ground, and surrounded by a ditch. The skeletons lay close to numerous pits containing painted pots painted with white slip and decorated with abstract designs – among the earliest painted vessels in the world. Some of the vessels were small enough to be held in one hand, the others, storage vessels, were much larger. There were also seven long-necked ‘Hu’ pots, used to drink alcohol in later times.

The researchers analysed the microfossil residues such as starch phytoliths and fungi extracted from the interior surfaces of the pots. They found that the starch, phytoliths, and microbial residues of mould and yeast were consistent with residues associated with beer fermentation. The vessels were used to hold a beer that was a fermented beverage made of rice, a grain called ‘Job’s ears’, and unidentified tubers. Most likely, it was a slightly fermented and sweet drink that was cloudy in colour. The fermentation took place when rice cultivation was still at an early stage, at a time when most people were still hunters and foragers.

The drink may have been a way of forging social relationships and cooperation. Or maybe, then as now, beer also served as a self-soothing method for raising one’s own spirits.

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Image: Painted pottery vessels for serving drinks and food.

Credit: Jiajing Wang

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