A Look at the World’s Oldest Tea


Last week my family and I had the privilege to help a dear friend. Her mother’s apartment needed to be cleared out, and, sadly, she was a hoarder who hid her valuables. Treasure among the dross.

Or, was it all treasure to her?

This made me rethink my own possessions. Like a little box that I’ve kept since . . . well, forever.


Opened, the box’s contents look like trash to someone who doesn’t attach a memory to the items. After all, who but me would know that the pencil stub had been sharpened with a knife by my  grandfather—whom I only dimly remember.

What would archaeologists of a distant future make of these trinkets? They wouldn’t know that when I looked at the pencil, I saw someone I cherished.

Yet—yet—they might well surmise that I held these trifles in some esteem, kept as they are, together in a box. Archaeologists do seek to attach meaning to what they uncover—while simultaneously striving to not make assumptions.

Taking Care with the Interpretations

This week, Guinness World Records validated that the tea leaves discovered in an emperor’s tomb in the Han Yangling Mausoleum in Xi’an, western China, are the world’s oldest (at least as of today!) at 2,100 years.

But this doesn’t mean simply that people—or at least the emperor—were drinking tea by then, nor is the age of the leaves necessarily the most important point of this discovery. Interpretations are always complex, and we must not apply today’s meaning to antiquity’s treasures.

Because tea does not grow near the area where the leaves were found, they were imported to Xi’an; because they were interred in Jing Emperor Liu Qi’s tomb, they obviously had significance. Researchers determined that the tea was high-quality beverage tea because it consisted mostly of buds of the species Camellia sinensis—but was it consumed as a beverage?

Although the researchers in this project say that their “study reveals that tea was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as 2100 yr BP” (Lu et al. 2016), Professor James Benn, as quoted in NPR’s article on the discovery, cautions that the presence of tea leaves doesn’t mean that they were consumed as “tea” like we do today—they may have been part of a “medicinal soup,” for instance.

But as Professor John Speth of the University of Michigan points out, “there is evidence of much earlier humans boiling up plant-based concoctions as drinks. It probably wasn’t tea in the technical sense but the idea of brewing plant concoctions is many thousands of years older. It is likely in fact that Neanderthals were already doing it, judging by phytochemicals found in Neanderthal dental calculus (tartar)” (see also Hardy et al. 2012).

So C. sinensis may well have been consumed for millennia before tea leaves were interred in the emperor’s tomb; we just haven’t found physical evidence yet.

But their presence—coupled with the concomitant positive identification of tea leaves in Gurgyam Cemetery in Tibet—substantiates that tea was “being imported to Xi’an in the first century BCE, and westwards into Tibet by the second century CE” (Lu et al. 2016).

This is the earliest physical evidence that tea, along with other luxury materials, was being transported on the Silk Road between the two regions.

Before this discovery, we had believed that tea came to Tibet only when Tibetan king Songtsen Gambo married Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty in 641, there being no evidence of tea on the Silk Road until the time of the Tang Dynasty. In addition, the oldest physical evidence of tea in the world had been from the Northern Song Dynasty in China, at the much later date of 960–1127.

The research team (Lu et al. 2016) writes that over 4,000 years ago, contact between eastern China, the Tibetan Plateau, and Central Asia resulted in “the spread of food grains, a few fruit trees and livestock, and can be connected with the development of settled farming in the Tibetan Plateau and parts of Central Asia.” Two thousand years later, luxury goods were being exchanged. And today, we have physical evidence that tea was among those goods.

So while the age of these tea leaves made the Guinness World Record, it is the leaves in context that make this a truly significant discovery.

–Cherfas, J. “World’s oldest tea discovered in an ancient Chinese emperor’s tomb,” The Salt, NPR, January 26, 2016. www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/01/26/464437173/worlds-oldest-tea-discovered-in-an-ancient-chinese-emperors-tomb.
–Hardy, K., et al. “Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus,” Naturwissenschaften 99(8):617–626. July 18, 2012.
–Lu, H., et al. “Earliest tea as evidence for one branch of the silk road across the Tibetan plateau,” Scientific Reports 6(18955). January 7, 2016.

–Swatman, R. “2,100 years old: Archaeologists discover world’s oldest tea leaves in China,” Guinness World Records, May 13, 2016. http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2016/5/archaeologists-discover-oldest-tea-leaves-in-china-after-2-100-years-428858.


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