Mysterious Rods Found in 5,500-year-old Tomb Prove to Be Earliest Drinking Straws

When found in a Bronze Age tomb over a century ago, the metal rods were assumed to be scepters. But royal batons wouldn’t be hollow and have tiny filters clogged with beer crud

Ariel David
Ariel David
Artist's impression of a communal quaff in ancient Maikop, using meter-long metal straws, some of which may have been decorated with detachable bulls
Artist's impression of a communal quaff in ancient Maikop, using meter-long metal straws, some of which may have been decorated with detachable bullsCredit: Kevin Wilson
Ariel David
Ariel David

Reusable straws are all the rage today as humanity tries to cut down on plastic waste. But we have invented nothing. The simple practice of fashioning a hollow tube to enjoy a beverage goes back thousands of years, and now a team of Russian scientists believe they have identified the oldest known surviving drinking straws.

The straws consist of eight rods made of gold and silver that were uncovered in an Early Bronze Age burial in the Caucasus. Dating back about 5,500 years, the artifacts were probably used to quaff beer or other beverages at banquets from a communal jar, the archaeologists suggest.

The custom of shared drinking through straws likely originated in Mesopotamia, and the discovery that it had spread as far as the Caucasus is yet another example in a growing body of evidence showing how the world experienced an early form of globalization in the Bronze Age.

For a long time, the objects mystified their finders. They were among the luxurious funerary offerings uncovered in 1897 in a kurgan – a type of burial mound – found near the city of Maikop in southern Russia.

Back then, archaeologists discovered three adult skeletons in the kurgan’s burial chamber. The central individual, believed to be a person of high social status, was dressed in an elegant garment, dripping in jewelry and surrounded by grave goods including pottery, metal tools and weapons. The discovery was sensational, and Maikop became the type site for the so-called Maikop culture, an Early Bronze Age farming society that occupied large parts of the Caucasus from around 3700 to 3000 B.C.E.

But archaeologists couldn’t figure out the purpose of what seemed to be the star artifacts of the Maikop kurgan, the ones that were placed closest, within hand’s reach, to the elite individual buried in the tomb. These eight tubes with tapered points were made of rolled silver and gold strips, and some were additionally decorated with a small, detachable bull figurine.

Drawing of the rods found in the Maikop kurganCredit: V. Trifonov

Drinking with the gods

The rods, now at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, have been variably interpreted over the last century as scepters or poles used to support a canopy during the funerary procession. But none of these theories explain why the objects were hollow, which made them much harder to manufacture, argues Viktor Trifonov, an archaeologist with the Institute for the History of Material Culture at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, Trifonov and colleagues suggest that the enigmatic gold and silver rods were just elevated versions of the humble drinking straw, adding that they were probably used to drink beer.

The main giveaway that the straws were for beer, not wine which was also being manufactured in the Caucasus at the time, is in the tapered tips of the artifacts. The tips have tiny perforations that acted as a strainer, filtering out the slurry that was standard in ancient beer, Trifonov explains.

Furthermore, the primitive filtration system of at least one of the tubes was found to contain microscopic barley starch granules, further supporting the theory that beer, which is made from fermented barley, had been imbibed through the artifact, the researchers report.

The drink of choice here is not surprising. The earliest (possible) evidence of beer brewing comes from a cave in today’s Israel and dates to some 13,000 years ago, suggesting prehistoric humans were getting buzzed on fermented barley even before the invention of agriculture.

Banquet scene with figures drinking through straws, around 2600–2350 B.C.E., SumerCredit: Rogers Fund, 1956 / Metropolitan

By the fourth millennium B.C.E., the time of the Maikop culture, beer had become a staple across the entire Near East, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, and was consumed by all: men, women and children. Measuring more than a meter in length, the straws from the Maikop kurgan would have allowed a group of drinking buddies to sit or even stand while sharing beer from a communal jar during a banquet or other ceremony. Perhaps such a ceremony took place as part of the funeral for the elite individual buried in the kurgan, using the single large jar found in the tomb, Trifonov suggests.

The volume of this vessel, 32 liters, indicates that even with eight drinkers each participant would have had a share of about four liters (seven pints) of beer – making for quite a cheery sendoff for the dearly departed. Or, possibly, the eight straws were symbolically placed next to the deceased so he could share a drink with the gods in the afterlife, Trifonov says. Or maybe it was for both purposes – who knows?

From Sumer with love

Given that the Maikop kurgan dates to around 3,500 B.C.E., these would be the oldest known surviving drinking straws, the new study claims. The next oldest samples are from the Royal Cemetery at Ur (in today’s southern Iraq), and date to about 1,000 years later, Trifonov says.

This however does not mean that straws were invented in the Caucasus, he qualifies.

Seal impressions from Mesopotamia and Iran from around 4,000 B.C.E. – predating the Maikop artifacts by centuries – already show scenes of communal drinking using similarly long straws. The custom therefore probably started in the Near East, and we simply haven’t found the earliest straws, also because they were probably made from reeds, a highly perishable material, Trifonov says. In some Mesopotamian examples, archaeologists have found standalone metal tip-strainers, suggesting that it was also common to make the filter out of more expensive materials and attach it to plain reed straws, he adds.

Drinking tubes and tip strainers: 1) Image of shared drinking, Royal Cemetery at Ur; 2–3) from Ur; 4) from Tell Asmar; 5) from Chagar BazarCredit: photographs 12 courtesy of th

So while the concept of the straw didn’t originate in the Caucasus, what the study of the Maikop tubes does highlight is the level of ties and exchange between this region and its distant southern neighbors. The Northern Caucasian steppes occupied by the illiterate Maikop culture were more than 1,000 kilometers from the sophisticated urban centers of the Sumerians. Yet the Maikop, or at least their elites, knew enough to develop a taste for the luxury and spectacle of Sumerian drinking ceremonies and funerary rites, Trifonov says.

“The fourth millennium B.C.E. was a unique period in the history of the Northern Caucasus: never before nor after was the region so profoundly integrated into the world of the ancient Near East,” he tells Haaretz. “The interesting question is to what extent the population of this remote periphery shared the ways of life, the values and the religious beliefs of the Western Asian cultures of that time.”

And the cultural exchange between Mesopotamia and the Caucasus wasn’t just a one-way street. For example, researchers believe that around 2000 B.C.E. (centuries after the disappearance of the Maikop culture) the domesticated horse was first introduced to Anatolia and Mesopotamia through the Caucasus.

‘Twas a small world after all

On an even broader level, the study of the Maikop straws is only the latest piece of evidence highlighting how, during the Bronze Age (3500-1200 B.C.E.) human civilizations became increasingly sophisticated and interconnected through vast trade networks.

As the Early Bronze Age turned into the Middle and Late Bronze Age, mass-produced Mycenaean pottery from Greece became a household export across the Mediterranean, and exotic foods such as soy and turmeric reached the Levant from East Asia.

Perforated figurines for straws: 1–2) gold and silver bull figurines from Maikop; 3) silver gazelle, maybe, from Staromyshastovsky; 4) Animal from UrCredit: photographs 1-3 courtesy of th

This early taste of globalization, or “Bronzization” as some scholars call it, came to a crashing end around 1200 B.C.E., when most of the major civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East were suddenly crippled or disappeared entirely. The exact causes of the so-called Bronze Age Collapse – probably a mix of climate change, social strife and war – are still being investigated. But it is becoming ever clearer that, for a long time during the Bronze Age, the world was a much smaller place than we thought.

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