How a thirst for beer brought us cereals—and not the other way around

The ancient Natufian people’s brew was probably less photogenic.
The ancient Natufian people’s brew was probably less photogenic.
Image: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
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We all know beer begets cereal in practice—who among us can say they have never tucked into a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch after a night at the bar? But new research suggests that beer may have begotten cereals in the early days of agriculture, too.

When a research team of archaeologists from the University of Stanford analyzed 13,000-year-old stone mortars found in a cave near Haifa, Israel, they hoped to investigate which plant foods the ancient, hunter-gatherer Natufian people consumed. Instead, they stumbled across evidence of a massive brewery from many millennia before the dawn of agriculture.

“This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world,” said the lead researcher, Li Liu.

In the past, people have often assumed that beer and other alcohols were produced as a way to use up agricultural waste. But in an article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, researchers suggested that a taste for beer may have been “an underlying motivation” for the later cultivation of grains used to make bread, cereal, and other foods. Put simply, beer came first.

The particular drink discovered in Israel, Liu said, “was developed for ritual purposes and spiritual needs,” and likely consumed at bacchanalian ritual feasts, held to venerate the dead.

Beer is technically any undistilled alcoholic beverage made by the fermentation of grain, but the liquid these early hunter-gatherers drank would put off even the most adventurous of today’s beer aficionados. This was probably a kind of thin gruel, made out of mashed cereals and fermented with the kind of airborne wild yeasts that today we capture in sourdough bread.

Short of drinking sourdough starter, there’s no good modern analog—though a can of Somerville Brewing Company’s Cap’n Crunch-infused Belgian-style ale might be a tasty way to honor the connection between beers and the cereals they spawned.