Alcoholic beverages in China 9,000 years ago

This article is a summary of information on the exciting discovery of alcoholic production (including beer) in prehistoric China.

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A team of researchers from Stanford University, Zhengzhou University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology has learned more about the ways Neolithic people in China made alcoholic beverages by studying pottery sherds from that era. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes their study of residue left behind on fragments of pottery.

The people living in Neolithic China, in what is now the Wei River Valley, had rice, millet and several other ingredients that allowed them to make fermented beverages.

The pottery sherds the researchers tested were dated to approximately seven to nine thousand years ago. They found traces of fungi, starches and plant tissue—ingredients for brewing fermented beverages. The sherds and the shape of the pottery they came from indicate that the Neolithic people were making their alcoholic beverages with two methods. One was to allow grains to sprout, which frees sugars in the plant. The other method was more complicated, involving fungi, herbs and grains to make a starter called qū—it allowed for “simultaneous saccharification and fermentation.”


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Chemical analyses of ancient organics absorbed, and preserved, in pottery jars from the Neolithic village of Jiahu, in Henan province, Northern China, have revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit was being produced as early as 9,000 years ago, approximately the same time that barley beer and grape wine were beginning to be made in the Middle East.

The prehistoric beverage at Jiahu, Dr. McGovern asserts, paved the way for unique cereal beverages of the proto-historic 2nd millennium BC, remarkably preserved as liquids inside sealed bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties. The vessels had become hermetically sealed when their tightly fitting lids corroded, preventing evaporation. Numerous bronze vessels with these liquids have been excavated at major urban centers along the Yellow River, especially from elite burials of high-ranking individuals. Besides serving as burial goods to sustain the dead in the afterlife, the vessels and their contents can also be related to funerary ceremonies in which living intermediaries communicated with the deceased ancestor and gods in an altered state of consciousness after imbibing a fermented beverage.

Both jiu and chang of proto-historic China were likely made by mold saccharification, a uniquely Chinese contribution to beverage-making in which an assemblage of mold species are used to break down the carbohydrates of rice and other grains into simple, fermentable sugars. Yeast for fermentation of the simple sugars enters the process adventitiously, either brought in by insects or settling on to large and small cakes of the mold conglomerate (qu) from the rafters of old buildings. As many as 100 special herbs, including wormwood, are used today to make qu, and some have been shown to increase the yeast activity by as much as seven-fold.


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The use of alcohol is nearly a universal human behavior, and China assumes one of the earliest places in the archaeological record for this practice, dating to as early as 9000 years ago. Multiple types of alcoholic beverages also appeared in the earliest writings of the late Shang dynasty some 3200 years ago. Alcohol may have played an important political role in ancestral rituals and feasts throughout the Neolithic and dynastic times, which helped to legitimize the political power of the elites and kings. However, our understandings of prehistoric alcohol production in general still remain sporadic. This problem is primarily because of the insufficient research on this subject, as compared with some regions in other parts of the world.


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Abstract Chemical analyses of ancient organics absorbed into pottery jars from the early Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province in China have revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape) was being produced as early as the seventh millennium before Christ (B.C.). This prehistoric drink paved the way for unique cereal beverages of the proto-historic second millennium B.C., remarkably preserved as liquids inside sealed bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties. These findings provide direct evidence for fermented beverages in ancient Chinese culture, which were of considerable social, religious, and medical significance, and help elucidate their earliest descriptions in the Shang Dynasty oracle inscriptions.

(Source: “Fermented beverages of pre- and proto-historic China”, by Patrick E. McGovern, Juzhong Zhang, Jigen Tang, Zhiqing Zhang, Gretchen R. Hall, Robert A. Moreau, Alberto Nuñez, Eric D. Butrym, Michael P. Richards, Chen-shan Wang, Guangsheng Cheng, Zhijun Zhao, and Changsui Wang)

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Abstract In China, pottery containers first appeared about 20000 cal. BP, and became diverse in form during the Early Neolithic (9000-7000 cal. BP), signaling the emergence of functionally specialized vessels. China is also well-known for its early development of alcohol production. However, few studies have focused on the connections between the two technologies. Based on the analysis of residues (starch, phytolith, and fungus) adhering to pottery from two Early Neolithic sites in north China, here we demonstrate that three material changes occurring in the Early Neolithic signal innovation of specialized alcoholic making known in north China: (i) the spread of cereal domestication (millet and rice), (ii) the emergence of dedicated pottery types, particularly globular jars as liquid storage vessels, and (iii) the development of cereal-based alcohol production with at least two fermentation methods: the use of cereal malts and the use of moldy grain and herbs (qu and caoqu) as starters. The latter method was arguably a unique invention initiated in China, and our findings account for the earliest known examples of this technique. The major ingredients include broomcorn millet, Triticeae grasses, Job’s tears, rice, beans, snake gourd root, ginger, possible yam and lily, and other plants, some probably with medicinal properties (e.g., ginger). Alcoholic beverages made with these methods were named li, jiu, and chang in ancient texts, first recorded in the Shang oracle-bone inscriptions (ca. 3200 cal. BP); our findings have revealed a much deeper history of these diverse fermentation technologies in China.

(Source: “The origins of specialized pottery and diverse alcohol fermentation techniques in Early Neolithic China”, by Liu L, Wang J, Levin MJ, Sinnott-Armstrong N, Zhao H, Zhao Y, Shao J, Di N, Zhang T)

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Abstract The pottery vessels from the Mijiaya site reveal, to our knowledge, the first direct evidence of in situ beer making in China, based on the analyses of starch, phytolith, and chemical residues. Our data reveal a surprising beer recipe in which broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and tubers were fermented together. The results indicate that people in China established advanced beer-brewing technology by using specialized tools and creating favorable fermentation conditions around 5,000 y ago. Our findings imply that early beer making may have motivated the initial translocation of barley from the Western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China before the crop became a part of agricultural subsistence in the region 3,000 y later.

(Source: “Revealing a 5,000-y-old beer recipe in China”, by Wang J, Liu L, Ball T, Yu L, Li Y, Xing F)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


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