Caffeine—and Tea—in the Stone Age

It’s commonly said that we’ve used caffeine for centuries, including during the Stone Age, when caffeine-containing plants were chewed for their stimulatory effects. This being pre-history, however, do you ever wonder how we know?

Well, archaeology often fills in when historical records don’t exist. Yes, there can be misinterpretations and over-interpretations, but sometimes the evidence seems particularly clear. For example, when you discover rows of plant roots mingled with broken pottery, it seems undeniable that humans were involved.

Archaeologists made such a find at China’s Tianluo Mountain (Tianluoshan or Snail Hill), located in coastal province Zhejiang. From my own first-hand experience of archaeological sites—where once I struggled to see the thin layer of darkened earth that so thrilled the archaeologist pointing it out to me—I appreciate the skill and patience of such scientists.

At Tianluo, a Neolithic site was first located in 2001 but excavations didn’t begin until 2004. In that first season, rhizomes were discovered about 39 inches down. They were arranged in rows, and the soil surrounding them was lighter in color and less compacted than virgin soil, indicating cultivation.

Although the roots were thought to be Camellia sinensis, it wasn’t until 2008 that archaeobotanists completed their testing and positively identified the roots as such, although the scientists advised the Tea Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences to conduct further examination. So, the roots were chemically analyzed and found to have the amino acid unique to tea (and some mushrooms), L-theanine.

Satisfyingly, the theanine concentration even matched that typically found in living C. sinensis roots, leaving no doubt as to what plants these were!

tea plant

This momentous discovery changed a couple of things:

First, it pushed tea cultivation back a few thousand years, from the historic period to the prehistoric period, i.e., the Stone Age!

Note that the Stone Age is divided into the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), and Neolithic (New Stone Age). The Neolithic is considered to span approximately 8000 BCE to around 2000 BCE. The tea rhizomes were dated to 3526–3366 BCE (with nearly 90% probability), placing them well within the Neolithic period.

Second, it pushed C. sinensis‘ known early geographical range from western Sichuan to this eastern area bordering the sea.

In addition, at least one researcher has speculated that humans were already drinking tea rather than simply chewing the leaves. The Tea Research Institute’s former director, Cheng Qikun, points out that:

The exploration team also discovered a pottery utensil similar to a teapot. It has both spout and handle. We can make a wild guess that people at that time found that leaves of the plants they cultivated were refreshing and started drinking them with the utensils.

This would upend what’s written in a lot of books, which commonly note that tea wasn’t drunk until much later, perhaps sometime in the first century BCE or the first century CE. Chinese scholar Lu Yu, who was born in 733, advocated brewing tea leaves without other herbals, so we know tea was being drunk by then.

If the pottery teapot-like artifact is determined to have been used to brew tea leaves, that will also change our understanding of when teapots were first used. Current thinking has assumed that tea was brewed in cups or bowls in those early years, not in pots.

Regardless how our Neolithic ancestors enjoyed their tea, we have evidence that they did indeed value its effects, maintaining a supply close at hand!

teapot and tea leaves

–Owyoung, S. D., “Tianluoshan: Tea in the Neolithic era,” Tsiosophy, 6/2/13.
–”Tea cultivation began earlier than thought,” China Daily, 7/3/15.

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