A collection of ancient gold and silver tubes unearthed in 1897 were initially believed to be poles or scepters. But now, experts say the findings may be the world’s earliest example of drinking straws — and that the tubes could have been used to guzzle beer from a pot during ceremonial feasts or communal banquets.
Measuring 3.6 feet (1.1 meters) each in length, the eight tubes were discovered in the Russian city of Maykop in 1897 during an excavation of a prehistoric burial mound, which also turned up the remains of three individuals and hundreds of artifacts including beads, weapons and tools.
The tubes are approximately 10 mm in diameter, boast a narrow tip and include what appear to be strainers, which would filter out the impurities that were common in age-old beer. Four of the eight tubes also featured elaborate bull figurines with a hole through the middle, which could move up and down the tubes with ease.
Previously, researchers believed that the tubes, which are approximately 5,500 years old, were used as support poles for canopies during funerals. However, following further study, experts at the Russian Academy of Sciences now believe the tubes were designed “for sipping a type of beverage that required filtration during consumption” and used at drinking ceremonies to commemorate the deceased.
“If correct, these objects represent the earliest material evidence of drinking through long tubes-a practice that became common during feasts in the third and second millennia BC in the ancient Near East,” the team wrote in the journal Antiquity.
In an email Wednesday to The Washington Post, Viktor Trifonov, the study’s lead author, said that the group had decided to reexamine the findings because they did not have any literature that “convincingly explained all specific features” of the items.
The team reviewed the design of the devices, including the “tube length and diameter” and the “slits and holes,” as well as the positioning of the items in the grave.
They also reviewed other evidence of ancient drinking practices — with a picture of a bronze drinking tube with a strainer from Iraq helping convince Trifonov that he was “on the right track.”
Trifonov then suggested the team check whether there was any residue still present inside the hollow tubes. Barley starch granules and pollen grains were identified inside one of the filters — further supporting the theory that the items were used to drink beer.
Trifonov added that the location of the tubes when found in the graves inside the Bronze Age mound was also noteworthy.
“The position of the tubes alongside the body emphasizes both the importance of the feast in the funerary rite and the high social rank for someone who throws a banquet,” he said, adding that they would have likely been used by the Maykop aristocracy.
“The set of eight drinking tubes in the Maykop tomb may therefore represent the feasting equipment for eight individuals, who could have sat to drink beer from the single, large jar found in the tomb,” the authors explained in their report.
The bull figurines, meanwhile, may have also served a practical purpose, Trifonov said — as they could have been used to balance the sticks on the side of the bowl or pot during such social drinks.
While the oldest alcoholic tipple is believed to have been created in China some 9,000 years ago, “it’s difficult to attribute the invention of beer to a particular culture or time period,” Evan Andrews wrote for the History Channel in 2018, adding that the first barley beer was likely to have been born in the Middle East.
The researchers said that the uncovered tubes bore similarities to straws used by the ancient Sumerians, whose civilization flourished circa 4100-1750 B.C.
“Drinking beer through long straws became common practice in the early Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria from the 3rd millennium B.C. onwards,” Trifonov said. “The art depicts multiple long straws placed in a communal vessel, allowing people standing or sitting nearby to drink together.”
The artifacts are on display at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.