5,000-Year-Old Mesopotamian Pay Stub Reveals Workers Were Paid with Beer

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An ancient cuneiform tablet dating back to 3,000 BC, which was discovered in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, in modern day Iraq, reveals that the workers of the ancient city were paid with beer rations.

Beer was then a thick, nutritious, carbohydrate-loaded brew that fueled the labor of Mesopotamian and also Egyptian workers as they did the hard work of constructing stone buildings, monuments, ziggurats and pyramids.

New Scientist reports that the Mesopotamian pay stub is one of the oldest known examples of writing. The article states:

Perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the earliest known examples of writing features two basic human concerns: alcohol and work. About 5000 years ago, the people living in the city of Uruk, in modern day Iraq, wrote in a picture language called cuneiform. On one tablet excavated from the area we can see a human head eating from a bowl, meaning “ration”, and a conical vessel, meaning “beer.” Scattered around are scratches recording the amount of beer for a particular worker. It’s the world’s oldest known payslip, that the concept of worker and employer was familiar five millennia ago.

Uruk was not the only place in the ancient world where people were paid in beer. According to an article on Smithsonian.org quotes libation archaeologist Patrick McGovern as saying: “For the pyramids, each worker got a daily ration of four to five liters. It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay. You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they’d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer.”

The Uruk archaeological site in Mesopotamia; as in Egypt, the Mesopotamians built their monuments in stone and paid their workers in beer. ( Wikimedia photo )

Monument and pyramid workers also received bread as part of their wages. After all, man does not live by beer alone.

Ars Technica points out that Geoffrey Chaucer was paid about 252 gallons of wine per year by Richard II of England. The member of parliament, government official and author of The Canterbury Tales lived in the 14 th century AD.

Even in modern times, one of the perks of working at certain establishments in some countries is drinking beer or other intoxicating beverages for free.

Regarding Mesopotamia, the epic of Gilgamesh has a passage on beer in which Enkidu becomes cultured by beer and bread :

Enkidu, a shaggy, unkempt, almost bestial primitive man, who ate grass and could milk wild animals, wanted to test his strength against Gilgamesh, the demigod-like sovereign. Taking no chances, Gilgamesh sent a (prostitute) to Enkidu to learn of his strengths and weaknesses. Enkidu enjoyed a week with her, during which she taught him of civilization. Enkidu knew not what bread was nor how one ate it. He had also not learned to drink beer. The (prostitute) opened her mouth and spoke to Enkidu: ‘Eat the bread now, O Enkidu, as it belongs to life. Drink also beer, as it is the custom of the land.’ Enkidu drank seven cups of beer and his heart soared. In this condition he washed himself and became a human being.

Gilgamesh was written in the 3 rd millennium BC, some time after this ancient pay stub was issued. The epic of Gilgamesh also takes place in the city of Uruk.

Tablet 5 of the epic of Gilgamesh

Tablet 5 of the epic of Gilgamesh ( Wikimedia photo/ Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg))

The site BeerInTheWorld.com says historians have traced beer’s roots to ancient African, Egyptian and Sumerian tribes. Sumer was a part of ancient Mesopotamia. “The oldest proven records of brewing are about 6,000 years old and refer to the Sumerians,” the site says. “It is said that the Sumerians discovered the fermentation process by chance.”

Featured image: This is the oldest known pay stub in the world, dating back 5,000 years to the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia. The wages were beer. (British Museum photo)

By Mark Miller



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