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The quest for red rice beer: transregional interactions and development of competitive feasting in Neolithic China

Abstract

The Neolithic cultures in China during the fourth millennium BC experienced increased transregional interactions, characterized by artifacts with striking similarities being distributed over an unprecedentedly large area, including certain forms of ceramic vessels. This phenomenon has been described as the interaction sphere, which formed the foundations of Chinese civilization. However, the exact function of those vessels has remained largely unclear. In this study, we focus on one type of such vessels, dakougang (wide orifice vats; DKG), which have often been found in elite burials and distributed from the Yangzi River environs to the Yellow River valley. By analyzing microfossil remains (starch, phytoliths, and fungi) in the residues on DKG and hypothetical drinking vessels (jars and cups) unearthed from a late Dawenkou culture site at Yuchisi in Anhui province, we conclude that these vessels were used for production and consumption of fermented beverages. The ingredients include rice, millet, Job’s tears, Triticeae, and snake gourd root; the fermentation method was to prepare a qu starter predominantly containing Monascus mold for producing red colored beer. The red beer made with DKG probably functioned as sacred drinks that conferred prestige on the host, served in competitive feasts, and associated with the emergence of elite social groups. The revelation of red rice beer produced and consumed with DKG, therefore, sheds new light on the intensified transregional interactions which contributed to the growth of social stratification at the dawn of Chinese civilization.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following individuals and institution. The technicians in the Qufu Archaeology Station in Shandong assisted with the sampling process, Dr. Jianping Zhang helped with the identification of some phytoliths, Professor Fusheng Chen helped with the identification of some Monascus molds, and Dr. Thomas Bartlett edited the English of the paper. The project was supported by the Min Kwaan Chinese Archaeology Project in the Stanford Archaeology Center, Stanford University.

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Liu, L., Wang, J., Chen, R. et al. The quest for red rice beer: transregional interactions and development of competitive feasting in Neolithic China. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 14, 78 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-022-01545-y

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Keywords

  • Yuchisi
  • Dawenkou culture
  • Qu starter
  • Monascus mold
  • Dakougang vat
  • Alcoholic beverages