Oldest brewed tea leaves found in royal tomb

The remains of tea leaves discovered in a royal tomb in Zoucheng, eastern China’s Shandong province, have been dated to 453-410 B.C., the early Warring States Period, making them the oldest known brewed tea in the world. The previous title-holders, discovered in 2005 in the tomb Emperor Jing of Han, are 300 years younger.

The leaves were found in an overturned porcelain cup during the 2018 excavation of tomb No. 1 at Xigang in the Ancient Capital City Site of the Zhu Kingdom in Zoucheng City. Archaeologists suspected at the time of the find that the charred remains of plant matter in the cup were tea. That was confirmed when scientific analyses — among them calcium phytoliths analysis, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and gas chromatograph mass spectrometry — compared the ancient matter to modern tea and steeped tea residue.

Their results show that the sample contains abundant calcium phytoliths identifiable as tea and that its FTIR spectra are similar with that of the modern tea residue.

They also detected caffeine, methoxybenzene compounds, organic acids, and several other compounds in both the ancient sample and the modern tea residue.

The Shennong Ben Cao Jing, the earliest surviving Chinese medical treatise written between 200 B.C. and 220 A.D., records a legend that tea was discovered as an antidote to poison by Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C., and references in agricultural almanacs from the Warring States Period refer to tea being used in religious sacrifices.

“Since ancient times, the Chinese people have always had the habit of drinking tea, but there is no physical evidence to prove when tea actually appeared, until the discovery of tea in the Han Yangling Mausoleum, which proved that Chinese tea has a history of at least 2,150 years, which has earned recognition from Guinness World Records as the oldest tea in 2016,” the scientists said.

“The identification of the tea remains in Zoucheng — the early stage of Warring States, approximately 2,400 years ago — has advanced the origin of tea by nearly 300 years.”

“Furthermore, the tea was found in a small bowl, providing additional evidence of the usage of tea.”

“Our results indicate that tea drinking culture may start as early as in Warring State period.”

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read in its entirety here.

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