Microscopic signatures of malting could help reveal which prehistoric people had a taste for beer.
Ancient beer is difficult to trace, because many of beer’s chemical ingredients, like alcohol, don’t preserve well. But a new analysis of modern and ancient malted grain indicates that malting’s effects on grain cell structure can last millennia. This microscopic evidence could help fill in the archaeological record of beer consumption, providing insight into the social, ritual and dietary roles this drink played in prehistoric cultures, researchers report online May 7th in PLOS ONE.
Malting, the first step in brewing beer, erodes cell walls in an outer layer of a grain seed, called its aleurone layer. To find out whether that cell wall thinning would still be visible in grains malted thousands of years ago, Andreas Heiss, an archaeobotanist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, and colleagues simulated archaeological preservation by baking malted barley in a furnace. Using a scanning electron microscope, the researchers observed thinned aleurone cell walls in the resulting malt residue. Heiss’s team found a similar pattern of thinning in residues from 5,000- to 6,000-year-old containers at two Egyptian breweries.
The researchers then inspected grain-based remains from similarly aged settlements in Germany and in Switzerland. These sites didn’t contain any tools specifically associated with beer-making. But grain-based residues from inside containers at the settlements did show thin aleurone cell walls, like those in the Egyptian remains — offering the oldest evidence of malting in central Europe, the researchers say.
Heiss and colleagues suspect the malted residue from one of the settlements in Germany was beer, because the sample has characteristics of dried-up liquid, such as cracks along its surface. But remains found at other sites may be other types of malted foodstuffs, like bread or porridge.
The proven archaeological record showed that beer brewing dated back to at least 3,000 to 3,500 BCE and now it appears that it’s at least a few centuries older than that. And though not yet proven, it is believed that brewing could be even older — dating as far back as 10,000 BCE when cereal was first farmed.
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