The Oldest Paycheck Was Cashed in Beer

The world’s oldest paycheck has apparently been discovered and it is claimed that it was spent on booze. New Scientist has a great article about recent archaeology finding that shows the world’s oldest known paycheck — written in a picture language known as cuneiform — was cashed in beer! Beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared beverages, possibly dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed and is recorded in the written history of ancient Iraq and ancient Egypt.

Cuneiform is a system of writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia circa 3500-3000 BCE. It is considered the most significant among the many cultural contributions of the Sumerians and the greatest among those of the Sumerian city of Uruk which advanced the writing of cuneiform circa 3200 BCE. The name comes from the Latin word cuneus for ‘wedge’ owing to the wedge-shaped style of writing. In cuneiform, a carefully cut writing implement known as a stylus is pressed into soft clay to produce wedge-like impressions that represent word-signs (pictographs) and, later, phonograms or ‘word-concepts’ (closer to a modern-day understanding of a ‘word’). All of the great Mesopotamian civilizations used cuneiform (the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hatti, Hittites, Assyrians, Hurrians, and others) until it was abandoned in favour of the alphabetic script at some point after 100 BCE.

Beer o'clock, circa 3000 BCE
Beer o’clock, ca. 3000 BCE (Photo: New Scientist | British Museum)

One tablet, excavated from the city of Uruk in modern-day Iraq, includes the symbols for “ration” (a human head eating from a bowl) and “beer” (a conical vessel): “Scattered around are scratches recording the amount of beer for a particular worker. It’s the world’s oldest known paycheck, implying that the concept of worker and employer was familiar five millennia ago.”

Sumerian tablet created during the 45th year of the reign of Shulgi, the King of Ur, in 2050 BCE. It is a dated and signed receipt written by a scribe called Ur-Amma for the delivery of beer, by a brewer named Alulu. The text translates as “Ur-Amma acknowledges receiving from his brewer, Alulu, 5 sila (about 4 1/2 liters) of the ‘best’ beer.” (Image courtesy of Dr Tom L. Lee via Wikipedia)

It’s difficult to attribute the invention of beer to a particular culture or time period, but the world’s first fermented beverages most likely emerged alongside the development of cereal agriculture some 12,000 years ago. The earliest known alcoholic beverage is a 9,000-year-old Chinese concoction made from rice, honey, and fruit, but the first barley beer was most likely born in the Middle East. The ancient Egyptians first documented the brewing process on papyrus scrolls around 5000 BCE These first beers were brewed with things like dates, pomegranates, and other indigenous herbs, and were probably quite harsh by today’s standards. Before the Egyptians, the primitive cultures of Mesopotamia are believed to have been the first brewers, though they didn’t bother to write anything down (this was circa 10000 BCE). All they left behind were malted barley scraps and bowls with beer like residue.

The invention of bread and beer has been argued to be responsible for humanity’s ability to develop technology and build civilisation. Their argument is that Stone Age farmers were domesticating cereals not so much to fill their stomachs but to lighten their heads, by turning the grains into beer.

It seems that some things really do not ever change!

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