Monday, May 22, 2017

How Long Have People Been Drinking Tea?


When I got into tea one of the first stories that really grabbed my imagination was that of Shennong. Who doesn't love the idea of a mythical horned emperor accidentally discovering the beverage that changed the world? Some versions say that a Camellia Sinensis leaf fell into his mouth while others say that it fell into some boiling water. This event occurred at the oddly specific time period of 2437 B.C. It is fairly unlikely that a single raw leaf would add much taste, let alone cure the 70+ poisons that he supposedly ingested. Nevertheless, the fable does lead one to wonder, how long people have been drinking tea?


Shennong - "the divine farmer"

The written word is sometimes a good indicator of how long something has been a part of people's lives. A Contract with A Servant by Han Dynasty poet Wang Bao is one of the earliest written accounts. Lu Yu's Classic of Tea, published around 760 C.E., is generally considered to be the first book on the subject of tea. Tea was already an integral part of society by that time period, particularly for the literati. The first mentions in English did not occur until about 1,000 years later. We've got a lot of catching up to do!

What about archeological evidence? Tea leaves have been found inside of the mausoleum of a Han Dynasty emperor. This potentially proves that tea was being consumed as early as 140 B.C. Although they were barely recognizable due to decomposition scientists were able to detect the presence of theanine, a substance only found in tea. Another excavation found Camellia Sinensis roots in a neolithic settlement on China's eastern coast. The plant material was carbon dated to an even earlier period of 3526- 3366 B.C. That would actually pre-date Shennong's infamous discovery.

It's important to keep in mind that ancient people may not have been preparing tea in the same fashion as we do today. It was used for medicinal purposes or as part of a soup-like preparation with spices. During the Song Dynasty, tea leaves were ground into a powder and whisked, not unlike the way matcha is prepared in Japan today. Wine and beer both predate tea by several thousand years but it's still pretty old as far as man-made beverages go. Isn't it neat that we're still enjoying tea in 2017 and that the culture around it is still evolving?

TLDR; it's hard to know exactly but we definitely know that people have been drinking tea a very, very long time! 😉

3 comments:

  1. This is extremely interesting stuff Nicole, thank you so much for posting. Have you looked at Victor Mair's work in this area? In addition to his book, he did a very interesting presentation to the GTI Colloquium at U.C. Davis this past January. Re the fascinating discovery of the roots at Tianloshan, do you know of any evidence that tea was consumed as a beverage at this point?

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  2. Hi Nicole, Mair's book is "The True History of Tea".

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  3. Thanks, David! I haven't come across Victor's work but I'll definitely have to look it up. The roots at Tianloshan were found very close to dwellings so they must have been fairly important to the people who lived there. From what I've read it is still a bit inconclusive as to whether or not the tea was used as a beverage, though.

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