‘Joy plants’ and the earliest toasts in the Ancient Near East

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By: Elisa Guerra Doce

Inebriation is a cross-cultural habit whose origins can be traced back to Prehistory. But humans are not the only species fond of the mind-altering effects of certain plants and drinks. Some animals are also attracted to overripe fruits and psychoactive plants. Orangutans, chimpanzees and other primates, elephants, and even birds, have been reported to over-indulge on fermented fruits. The image of an intoxicated moose in Sweden went viral in 2011, when the animal literally got stuck in an apple tree trying to eat more fermented fruits.

A drunken moose after eating fermenting apples in Saro, Sweden (CNN).

In their search for food early humans are likely to have come across plants and mushrooms with peculiar effects. The use of psychoactive plants, many of which are consumed raw, predates the consumption of fermented beverages. As yet there is no direct evidence of these practices during the Palaeolithic. The presence of ephedra, a natural stimulant, in a Neanderthal grave, ca. 60,000 BCE, in Shanidar Cave, northern Iraq, has been considered some of the earliest evidence for the use of mood-altering plants in the Old World. But since this Middle Palaeolithic burial cave has been disturbed in modern times by rodent activity this interpretation is debatable. There is also no direct evidence for the production of fermented beverages during the Neolithic before the invention of pottery, although the technological and technical prerequisites of brewing were well established during the Natufian of the Near East (ca. 12,500-9,500 BCE).

The Shanidar IV ´Flower Burial` (Smithsonian Institution).

From the Neolithic onwards, however, there is no doubt regarding the consumption of psychoactive plants and alcoholic beverages. The domestication of the opium poppy probably started during the sixth millennium BCE in the Western Mediterranean, spreading from there to the rest of the Old World. Apart from its oily seeds, the exploitation of its narcotic properties cannot be ruled out. The earliest written records suggesting the use the opium poppy date back to the third millennium BCE; Sumerians appear to have referred to it as Hul Gil, the ´joy plant`, but this claim is still a matter of debate. But by the second millennium BC, there is considerable information evidence for the cultivation of the opium poppy and its ritual use in the Eastern Mediterranean. Among the most interesting examples of religious scenes from the Late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean (ca. 1600-1100 BCE) that include this plant species are a golden signet ring found by Heinrich Schliemann in the acropolis of Mycenae, and the so-called Poppy Goddess figurine from the Minoan sanctuary at Gazi.

Gold signet ring from the Acropolis treasure of Mycenae. Grave Circle A. (National Archaeological Museum of Athens).

The Minoan Poppy Goddess from Gazi (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion).

Some scholars believe Sumerian and Assyrian tablets mention other psychoactive plants, including deadly nightshade, mandrake, and hemp. In contrast, Egyptian papyri contain uncontested evidence of the use of different psychoactive plant species from the middle of the second millennium BCE onward. Similar plant descriptions are included in the Bible, and this has given rise to the still controversial hypothesis that ancient Israelite religion was associated with the use of mind-altering plants in sacramental contexts. Nonetheless, there is direct evidence for the medicinal use of Cannibis in Roman times, as indicated by the presence of charred seeds in the tomb of a 14-year-old girl excavated in Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, dating to the fourth century AD, probably used as an aide to childbirth.

Direct evidence of alcoholic drinks in the past is based on the identification of residues in the inner walls of archaeological vessels. Traces of the original contents of ancient pottery, invisible to the naked eye, may have been absorbed within the porous ceramic matrix of the vessels and may be detected and chemically identified. To date the earliest chemically confirmed alcoholic drink in the world was found at the Early Neolithic village of Jiahu, in the Yellow River Valley of China (Henan Province), ca. 7000–6600 BCE. Residues adhering to potsherds point to a mixed fermented beverage of wild grapes or hawthorn fruit (Crataegus sp.), rice (possibly a domesticated variety), and honey.

Early Neolithic jars from Jiahu (Henan province, China) containing a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape) (Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia).

Similarly, wine may have been produced from wild grapes in the Caucasus region during the Neolithic, as suggested by the identification of tartaric acid in pottery jars of that period. Analyses of two ceramic vessels, found at the site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of north-western Iran, ca. 5400–5000 BCE, showed that they had contained a resinated wine with terebinth tree or pine resin added as a preservative and medicinal agent.

Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, after discovering the residues in the pots from Hajji Firuz Tepe (Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia).

It has been argued that the wild Eurasian grapevine was domesticed somewhere in the arc of mountains extending from the eastern Taurus across Transcaucasia to the northwestern Zagros, since many archaeological sites from this region have provided grape seeds corresponding to the domesticated variety (Vitis vinifera L. subsp. vinifera). It should be noted that according to the Bible, Noah allegedly planted the first vineyard on Mount Ararat, located in eastern Turkey.

Not long after the domestication of grapes, wine was produced in large quantities in specialized facilities, such as the cave complex of Areni 1, a Chalcolithic site in south-east Armenia, dated to around 4000 BCE. Excavations have unearthed a fully equipped winery consisting of basins that could have served as wine presses where grapes were trodden, and also fermentation vats, storage jars, drinking bowls, and remains of domesticated grapes. Researchers working at the site believe that wine may have been made for mortuary practices, since 20 burials were found next to the winemaking facilities and drinking cups have been found inside and around the graves.

Grape pressing installation in the cave complex Areni 1, Armenia (Antiquity Journal).

Modern impression of a Sumerian cylinder seal from the Early Dynastic III period (ca. 2600-2350 BC): Banquet scene with seated figures drinking from a large vessel using long stalks (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Uluburun shipwreck (Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Turkey).

The consumption of alcohol in ancient civilizations of the Near East is well attested to from the fourth millennium BCE through iconographic representations of drinking scenes, archaeochemical analyses of pottery sherds, and later on also through texts dating from the second millennium BCE (such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing and beer, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and others). Beer and wine were produced on a large scale, traded along the Mediterranean (as revealed by residue analyses on some amphoras from the Late Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck), and their consumption was quickly associated with ritual ceremonies.

Beer, weed, wine, opium? It seems that ancient inhabitants of the Near East had a rock and roll lifestyle! Actually, it was quite the contrary, the consumption of psychoactive substances in the ancient Near East differed dramatically from that image. Our predecesors managed to make their use beneficial to society by integrating drug plants and alcohol into social, religious, and medicinal practices. The mind-altering effects of these agents were interpreted as part of a religious experience. Not surprisingly, then, wine had a significant role in Judaism and came to symbolize the blood of Christ for Christians.

Elisa Guerra Doce is a faculty member in the Departamento de Prehistoria, Arqueología, Antropología Social y Ciencias y Técnicas Historiográficas at the Universidad de Valladolid (Spain).

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1 Comments for : ‘Joy plants’ and the earliest toasts in the Ancient Near East
  1. Pingback: Weekly Roundup of Archaeology, History and Historical Fiction March 4-10 | Judith Starkston

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