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World's oldest coffee beans discovered.

RAS AL-KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Archaeological excavations in the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, situated close to Dubai on the coast of the Arabian Gulf, have revealed the oldest coffee beans in the world. The beans were found in layers dated to the early 12th century AD, pushing back the date at which coffee is believed to have first been drunk and traded by 250 years.

As most coffee specialists will know, coffea arabica grows naturally in the highlands of Ethiopia. it was chewed there by the local people, but seems not to have been traded until its special properties were recognized by Muslims from Yemen. The beans were then taken to Yemen where coffee was first made into a drink and began to achieve widespread popularity.

But the historical traditions surrounding these events are confused. There are many legends, which are often cited with great authority, but very few facts. Nothing was actually written about the origins of coffee until the 16th century, but by this time the truth seems to have been lost. The earliest claims center around a man known as Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili, who in the absence of better candidates - has become the 'patron saint' of coffee and coffee drinkers among the Arabs.

Al-Shadhili, who died in 1418 AD, is supposed to have brought the first coffee to Mocha in Yemen after having discovered its medicinal qualities while in Ethiopia at the end of the 14th century. The drink is supposed to have become popular among Muslim mystics as it produced the necessary' alertness for the long nightly religious ceremonies. Thereafter, the Yemenis hung onto a world monopoly of coffee production until the middle of the 17th century, when cultivation was begun in other parts of the world.

Coffee beans are not the sort of finds one usually expects from an archaeological excavation, where pots and statues are normally the order of the day. However, archaeologists are becoming increasingly skilled at uncovering such evidence through the use of new technology. The beans were retrieved by a specialized palaeobotanical flotation machine, which uses water to separate carbonized matter from the excavated soil without damaging the fragile evidence. The beans themselves owe their preservation to the fact that they were carbonized through roasting in the 12th century. Unfortunately, none of the beans are complete, but enough are preserved to allow a positive identification as coffea arabica. The dating of the beans is based on a reference point established by the imported Chinese and Islamic pottery shards that were found, in the same layers.

This new discovery allows us to rewrite the first chapter of coffee's history: If coffee beans were being roasted in Ras al-Khaimah in the early 12th century, it is quite obvious that the crop had already become a tradable commodity about 250 years before al-Shadhili is supposed to have been active. The question, then, revolves around where the beans come from.

Dr. Adrian Parker, of Oxford University, expedition palaeobotanist and discoverer of the beans, believes that they are most likely to have been grown in Yemen since the climate of Ras al-Khaimah is not at all suitable for coffee cultivation. The beans occur in precisely the same levels of the dig where the pottery suggests growing trade contacts with Yemen. The evidence indicates, therefore, that the beans came from Yemen, where coffee must have been introduced much earlier than the historical sources record.

The excavations at the site of Kush, or old Julfar, sponsored by Shell and the British Museum, are aimed at investigating the historical and environmental development of the region, and are looking especially for evidence for the introduction of new crops from the Indian subcontinent to the Near East and the Mediterranean.

Old Julfar was an important trading center on the Indian Ocean trade routes and was colonized by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. Other seeds so far identified by the dig include wheat, barley, olives, watermelon, and chickpeas. (Derek Kennet)
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Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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