Ancient Sumerians may not have consumed beer

Cuneiform writing began in ancient Sumer at the end of the fourth millennium BC. Image: Shutterstock.

Were they really the world’s first brewers?

Cuneiform tablets dating from over 4,000 years show that Sumerians enjoyed a fermented cereal juice. But the exact production process remains shrouded in mystery.

Reconstructing ancient brewing methods is difficult, according to the late cuneiform writing scholar Peter Damerow of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Germany. In a recent study, published in the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, he used ancient administrative Cuneiform texts (dated 4,000 years) to examine ancient Sumerian beer-brewing technologies.

Many of these texts recorded the deliveries of barley, emmer and malt to the breweries. But apart from these ingredients and their delivery, the tablets contain little information about the brewing process.

According to Damerow, the texts were probably written for an audience already familiar with brewing techniques. “Hundreds of such texts document more or less explicitly administrative activities performed in the context of the production, distribution, and consumption of beer, although the information they provide is specifically restricted,” he wrote.

“They were written for people who knew the context of beer production and distribution and not to inform modern readers about these processes.”

The Hymn to Ninkasi is regarded as a significant source on ancient brewing techniques, but it does not provide any reliable information about the steps in the process or the constituents. Without modern knowledge of the chemistry of brewing, it is difficult to interpret the document.

The Tall Bazi Project, which attempted to brew beer using ancient methods, also cast doubt on the hymn. Using cold mashing, the team produced a brew of barley and emmer and adjusted the alcohol level by changing the percentage of water. But it took modern knowledge to do this.

“Given that many passages of the text are obscure, the translation is influenced to a considerable extent by knowledge about modern brewing technology,” Damerow wrote.

These uncertainties have led to the question of whether the brew was even beer. “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.”

The brew may have resembled the bread drink kvass from Eastern Europe, rather than wheat beer, but there is no way of determining this.

Source: Science Daily

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