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World's first-known cuppa

Oldest-known evidence for brewed tea found in China and dated to 453-410 BC.

Chinese tea is some of the finest in the world. Its consumption has long been assumed to go back to about 150 BC, but a recent discovery of charred tea leaves in an upturned porcelain cup from a royal tomb at Xigang, capital of the Zhu kingdom in Zoucheng city in eastern China’s Shandong province, has extended the archaeological record of tea by another three centuries.

The researchers analysed the calcium phytoliths in the tea leaves, and also used gas chromatography mass spectrometry, comparing Xigang tea to modern samples and tea residues. They extracted calcium phytoliths, which confirmed that the leaves were from teas, with many similarities to modern tea residues. Caffeine, method oxybenzene compounds, and various organic acids were common both to the ancient sample and modern examples.

The Shennong Ben Cao Jing, a Chinese medical handbook dated to between 200 BC and AD 220, recounts a legend that tea was an effective antidote against poison, and claims that it was discovered by the mythical Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC. Meanwhile, agricultural almanacs from the earlier Warring States Period (c.453 BC) refer to tea as an offering used in ritual sacrifices. However, the tea leaves from Zoucheng come from a porcelain cup. This implies that tea was already used as a drink. Dated to between 453 and 410 BC, this discovery is the world’s oldest-known evidence for brewed tea. Cheers.

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Image: Tea residue was found in a porcelain cup dated to around 2,400 years ago.

Credit: Shandong University

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