How often do you pop the kettle on and brew yourself a cup of tea? Many of us do it without even thinking about it, because making your favourite cuppa, is just a natural part of life. But how many years do you think man has been making his favourite brew?
The year 2737BC is often used as a point of reference for tea, and the myth or legend of Emperor Shen Nong. Shen Nong is said to have been the first person to sip on an infusion of boiled water and leaves from the Camelia sinensis or tea plant but this has now been put under question by a group of scientists. A recent, archaeological excavation at Yuyao, on the east coast of China. Seems to have shifted this timeline, as to when man first brewed tea by about 3 to 4,000 years earlier. The archaeological team uncovered ancient roots of the Camellia sinensis plant, which are believed to be around 6,000 to 7,000 years old. The archaeologists also discovered fragments of pottery, which they believe to be the earliest remains and evidence of humans brewing tea. This proves the plant had been transported to the east coast of China at least 6,000 years ago. Which to give you some time scale is earlier than the building of the great pyramids in Egypt.
This decade long archaeological dig, started in 2004 and was investigating the Hemudu culture, on Tianluo Mountain near Yuyao. When in June this year, the Zhejiang Archaeological Institute, and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Tea Research Institute in Hangzhou, jointly announced the findings of these ancient roots and the fragments of pottery. The archaeological expert team was made up of members from Japans National University of Kanazawa, Tohoku University, Japan and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Tea Research Institute. The team painstakingly identified firstly that the roots were not timber from Hemudu buildings, next, to identify that the roots were of the Camellia sinensis variety of the species and not those of a close relative the Camellia sasanqua. The results were conclusive on both accounts.
So how far will science take us down this road of discovering as to when man, first started drinking tea? Scientists today believe the origins of the Camellia sinensis plant start in south western China in a region known as Yunnan. Which is a great distance from the findings in Yuyao, so where did it all start. We need to go back around 60 million years to the great collision between India and Eurasia. This collision which still continues today, saw parts of East Asia being pushed away from the main Eurasian plate, creating a rising land mass. The land being pushed upwards, and which we now know today as the Himalaya Mountain range, boasts some of the highest peaks on earth. This rising land mass also created new environments in the surrounding areas. One such area was Yunnan, which today boarders the countries of Myanmar, Laos and North Vietnam.
As Yunnan’s elevation changed, it became if you like; a perfect fertile greenhouse for the evolution of many of China’s plants. Large numbers of plants that we today take for granted, evolved in this region in the years after the great collision. One individual plant that as tea drinkers we are particularly interested in, is the one we call Camellia sinensis – the tea plant.
Another widely accepted viewpoint is that early man in the form of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens travelling from Africa, arriving in Asia around 60-70 thousand years ago. These early people ventured into the areas where Camellia sinesis was evolving and developing into its early form. Who’s to say those early people weren’t the first to pluck and chew on the leaves of our beloved tea plant, and possibly experience the benefits in doing so? Over thousands of years man certainly became attached to this humble plant, transporting, and transplanting it throughout various parts of eastern Asia, and later on to many other parts of the world. Today the Camellia sinensis calls many places home, as far south as Tasmania and as northerly as Scotland in the UK. This plant that has cost the lives of thousands, in so many conflicts and events around the world. While at the same time, has saved millions from the scourge of water borne diseases through the boiling of water. Has helped win wars, was certainly a decisive factor in the success of the industrial revolution. It has created employment for billions of people over the centuries, and has helped develop some of the largest businesses on earth. All to create our favourite brew!
So who knows how far our future scientists, and new technologies will be able to research, discover and understand the beginnings of the world’s favourite brew?
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