The tubes were buried with an individual in a lavish grave, suggesting a link to the ancient Sumerians.
Many ancient human societies loved beer. Bronze-Age Egyptians built factories to brew it. Foragers stored the fermented drink in a cave in Israel about 13,000 years ago. A pre-Incan empire in the Andes served the beverage at state-sponsored feasts.
New evidence suggests that beer parties also inspired the oldest-known straws on Earth.
Archaeologists discovered these three-foot-long, silver and gold tubes at a burial mound called Maikop kurgan, in the Caucasus, in 1897. The tomb features three compartments, with someone buried in each. The person inside the largest compartment was buried with intricate garments, hundreds of beads, ceramics, weapons, and tools arranged along the walls.
At the skeleton's right hand were eight tubes made of silver and gold that are more than 5,000 years old, some attached to tiny bull figurines. At first, archaeologists thought the tubes were scepters, or maybe poles for holding up a canopy.
But archaeologist Viktor Trifonov had a different theory. He looked to the Sumerians, an early civilization in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait). They regularly drank beer from long straws with built-in metal strainers for filtering out debris or other impurities floating in their beverages.
The Maikop "scepters" have similar strainers.
The real smoking gun, however, was Trifonov's discovery that residue inside one of the Maikop tubes contained granules of barley starch. The researchers could not figure out whether the barley had been fermented, but its presence inside the straw suggests its users were drinking beer.
"If the interpretation is correct, these fancy devices would be the earliest surviving drinking straws to date," Trifonov, who works at the Institute for the History of Material Culture at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in a press release.
Straws allowed ancient people to share big jugs of beer
Ancient Sumerian art depicts several long straws sticking out of a communal vessel with people surrounding it. Trifonov's team thinks that Maikop people used their straws similarly. It's akin to a modern-day shared party bowl.
The researchers also found a large vessel at Maikop kurgan, which they believe could be the party bowl itself. There's no evidence that it was used for beer, but it could hold enough liquid for eight straw-drinkers to sip seven pints. The bull figurines, which can slide up and down the poles, but stop at the bottom, may have helped balance the straws while people sat together and drank.
"Before having done this study, I would never have believed that in the most famous elite burial of the Early Bronze Age Caucasus, the main item would be neither weapons nor jewelry, but a set of precious beer-drinking straws," Trifonov said.
The straws' inclusion in the Maikop mound suggests ties between Maikop people and their southern Mesopotamian neighbors. People in the Caucusus may have had lavish royal funerals similar to those documented in Sumeria.
The analysis of the Maikop tubes was published in the January issue of the journal Antiquity. The straws are on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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