Gold and silver tubes in a Russian museum are the oldest known drinking straws

Metal artifacts enabled communal beer drinking more than 5,000 years ago, researchers say

an illustration of ancient people gathered around a pot drinking from long straws

Eight gold and silver tubes identified by researchers as more than 5,000-year-old straws were probably used to drink beer from a communal container, as depicted here.

Kelvin Wilson

Eight silver and gold tubes held in a Russian museum have long been thought to have been either ceremonial staffs or canopy supports. In reality, the long tubes are the oldest surviving drinking straws, researchers say.

People used these high-end straws to drink beer from a communal vessel more than 5,000 years ago, conclude archaeologist Viktor Trifonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and colleagues. Excavations in 1897 in Russia uncovered the metal tubes, jewelry and other goods in a burial mound containing three individuals from the Maikop culture, which dates to between about 5,700 and 4,900 years ago (SN: 6/7/30).

Each slender tube extends for just over one meter. Four of the finds include a gold or silver bull figurine, punctured by a hole so that it could be slid up and down the tube. Meanings attributed to straws with or without figurines are unknown, Trifonov’s group says.

A composite image of fragments of gold and silver tubes that may have been used as drinking straws
Different gold and silver components such as those shown here, including a perforated tip (far left), were forged and probably soldered into long tubes that served as drinking straws in the ancient Maikop culture, scientists say.V. Trifonov, D. Petrov and L. Savelieva/Antiquity 2022

Residue from the inner surface of one tube, near its tapered tip, contains barley starch granules, cereal particles from a wild or domesticated plant and a pollen grain from a lime tree, the scientists report in the February Antiquity. Those may have been ingredients of a flavored beer, though further work needs to confirm that the barley remains show fermentation damage (SN: 5/7/20).

Maikop people, who inhabited southern Russia and southeastern Europe, probably had cultural ties to Sumerians living near the Persian Gulf, the researchers say. More than 4,000-year-old Sumerian carvings show people using long straws to drink from communal vessels.

Beer brewing began as early as around 13,000 years ago in the Middle East. And seal impressions on clay tablets dating to roughly 7,000 years ago in Iraq and Iran depict people drinking with straws.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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