Beer – today it’s a cool, refreshing after-work beverage. About 5,000 years ago, it was a cool, refreshing beverage to work for. What appears to be the oldest pay stub ever shows a picture of a worker getting compensated with beer. Was overtime paid in pretzels? Camel jerky?
A clay tablet from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk found recently in what is now Iraq is covered with cuneiform characters that appear to indicate it was a record of how much beer a worker was paid for his labor.
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.
Dr. Ian Hodder, an anthropologist at Stanford University in California, describes the discovery in New Scientist. Uruk began as a group of farming villages and became one of the first major cities of Sumer and Babylonia between 4,000 and 3,200 BC. At its peak, it had over 80,000 residents, possibly because it was the home of King Gilgamesh, the hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
A city of 80,000 people in 2016 requires a large number of workers to function. Imagine what it took in 4,000 BC when those 80,000 people had no cell phones, no currency and no sophisticated writing system (which didn’t matter because they had no paper). Even Gilgamesh would have a hard time keeping Uruk functioning and keeping the camel trains running on time.
Fortunately, there was beer.
In the epic poem, Gilgamesh is told by the ale-wife Siduri to “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry,” which is believed to refer to consuming beer. Beer would have helped the transition from agrarian to urban life since it was an easy-to-make grain product that was filling, had a little kick and was far safer to drink that the local water polluted by 80,000 people with no concept of sanitation.
While other cultures also paid workers with beer (Egyptian pyramid builders, for instance), the cuneiform tablet is the first pay record depicting it. It’s one of about 130,000 cuneiform tablets at the British Museum. For those who got paid in something other than beer, perhaps there’s a tablet there depicting the tab they ran up until payday at the local Camel Pub.