Prehistoric Israelis enjoyed their booze some 7,000 years ago

Strainers found in two different sites in the region testify of beer production and consumption in the Chalcolithic period, possibly in connection with ceremonies and feasts.

 Silos at Tel Tsaf. (photo credit: BOAZ/YOSEF GARFINKEL)
Silos at Tel Tsaf.
(photo credit: BOAZ/YOSEF GARFINKEL)

Around 7,000 years ago, beer was produced in the area of modern Israel and likely consumed on convivial occasions, new research by a group of Israeli and international scholars has suggested.

The researchers, including Prof. Danny Rosenberg from the University of Haifa and Prof. Li Liu from Stanford University in the US, analyzed two pottery strainers unearthed in two archaeological sites and were able to confirm that they were indeed used to strain beer.

The finds, published in the December issue of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, also suggest a higher level of complexity in terms of social relations in the region during the period known as Chalcolithic than previously thought.

“The earliest evidence for the production of cereal-based (wheat/barley) fermented beverages in the southern Levant was documented in the context of complex hunter-gatherers,” the researchers wrote.

“However, so far there are only limited data regarding the evolution of alcohol production and consumption from the Epipalaeolithic through the Early Bronze Age when a clear rise in the evidence for alcohol consumption is visible,” they added, referring to the millennia between 20,000 and 5,500 years ago.    

According to the experts, the question of how common alcohol consumption was is specifically interesting with regards to the Chalcolithic period – 8,000 to 5,800 years ago – a time that witnessed important developments in terms of social organization, cultic practices, and crafts, as well as in farming abilities.

The strainer vessels – clay colanders used for filtering liquids or sifting through other materials – first appeared in the early Chalcolithic period.

The team analyzed one artifact dating back to around 7,000 years ago found in Tel Tsaf – a prehistoric site in the Jordan Valley – and the second one uncovered in the village of Peqi‘in in the Upper Galilee (a site dating back to 4500 to 3900 BCE).

In the first case, the strainer was retrieved in an area where cooking facilities and silos stood. The Peqi‘in vessel was found near the entrance of a cave used as a burial site.

On both, the researchers found traces of cereals and yeast, confirming that the tools were used to strain beer.

“The new finds presented here represent novel data for fermentation during the Chalcolithic period of the southern Levant,” Rosenberg, Liu, and their colleagues wrote.

The contexts where the strainers were found suggest a connection between drinking and convivial moments within the communities.

“In the case of the Tel Tsaf finds it might be possible to see this drinking in connection with communal storage units and ritual activity, and it is tempting to suggest that the filling of the silos was connected with extensive drinking,” they further wrote. “The Peqi‘in finds point to a sepulchral context and fit well with other evidence of ritual drinking associated with burials.”

After being filtered in the large communal bowl, the beer was likely poured into individual cups.

“It seems, based on our results, that during different phases of the Chalcolithic period of the southern Levant, alcohol was produced, shared, and consumed in different contexts,” the researchers concluded. “While we can just assume that the serving and consumption of alcohol changed through time and was depended on geographical and cultural constraints and customs, it is clear that the alcohol-accompanied interactions occurred within increasingly complex social settings.”