Archaeological records related to ancient drinks are quite rare, but they take us to realms of ancient life which were hidden for a long time.
25 November, 2016
Archaeological records related to ancient drinks are quite rare, but they take us to realms of ancient life which were hidden for a long time. With new technologies and chemical analysis, scientists are finally able to write a detailed story of ancient feasts, celebrations, and rituals during which people consumed alcoholic drinks.
It is unknown when the word ‘alcohol’ was used for the first time. It is also very difficult to find out how the first alcoholic drink was made and why people decided it was tasty. However, the oldest known alcoholic drink comes from around c. 7,000 – 6,500 BC, from the Chinese village Jiahu in the Henan province. Researchers discovered the drink was made of rice, grapes, honey, and hawthorn berries.
People in the Middle East started to make a barley beer at the same time. However, archaeological evidence of the oldest barley beer comes from circa 6,000 BC and was excavated in Georgia. As for wine, researchers discovered archaeological evidence of this drink from circa 7,000 BC while at a site that belonged to an ancient culture who once lived near the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Drinking in the Middle East
In Egypt, the use of barley was quite common in the production of alcohol. This drink was the second most common source of liquid people consumed. (Water was the first.) It was so popular that even children drank it. There is evidence of beer production since the earliest days of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Moreover, in Egypt, as in Sumeria, alcohol was also used as medication.
An Egyptian funerary model of a bakery and brewery. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Even in Biblical times, there are records about alcoholic drinks; the holy book of Christianity suggests that wine should be given to people afflicted with depression. According to Proverbs 31:6-7, the influence of wine helps people forget their misery.
Greek and Roman Celebrations of Wine
The European tradition of drinking wine probably started in the territory of Classical Greece when people drank it during breakfast. A person who didn’t drink wine in ancient Greece was considered a barbarian. However, many famous philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato, criticized their society for drinking too much.
Wine boy at a Greek symposium. (Public Domain)
As for the ancient Romans, they didn’t produce wine until they conquered lands where its production and consumption was already established. It seems that they adopted the idea of drinking wine from the Greeks and Etruscans.
Hellenistic mosaics discovered close to the city of Paphos depicting Dionysus, god of wine. (Public Domain)
James Grout’s Encyclopedia Romana explains: “The earliest work on wine and agriculture was written in Punic. After the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, the Senate decreed that this treatise be translated into Latin, and it subsequently became the source for all Roman writing on viticulture. Ironically, it was Cato who had insisted on the destruction of Carthage in the Punic wars and who, about 160 BC, wrote De Agri Cultura, the first survey of Roman viticulture, which, significantly, also is the earliest surviving prose work in Latin. In it, he discusses the production of wine on large slave-based villa estates, which suggests how important vine cultivation had become in an agrarian economy that traditionally was based on subsistence farming. Indeed, by 154 BC, says Pliny, wine production in Italy was unsurpassed. That same year, the cultivation of vines was prohibited beyond the Alps, and, for the first two centuries BC, wine was exported to the provinces, especially to Gaul, in exchange for the slaves whose labor was needed to cultivate the large estate vineyards. (In part, the wine trade with Gaul was so extensive because its inhabitants, writes Diodorus Siculus, were besotted by wine, which was drunk unmixed and without moderation). But, as more land was expropriated by the villa estates, the displaced rural population was forced to emigrate to Rome until, by the first century BC, the city had approximately one million inhabitants.”