Prehistoric coffee



There is certainty that coffee has been traded and drunk for at least 500 years. But coffee didn't come out of nowhere. According to recent phylogenetic studies, Coffea arabica (that produces arabica coffee) was the result of the natural hybridization of two other varieties of coffee:  Coffea canephora and Coffea eugenoides, between 1 million and 500 thousand years ago. This means that the robusta coffee variety (C.canephora) is even older.

The coffee is native to Ethiopia, where, by the way, for millions of years have been living different species of hominids from which Homo sapiens descends. Some such as Homo erectus were in the area 1.7 million years ago, collecting food, hunting, or scavenging. It is doubtful that an omnivorous species capable of traveling long distances overlooked a tree with attractive red fruits, as is the case of the coffee tree and its cherries. Of course, this is nothing more than a conjecture, as there is no fossil evidence of it, but it is perfectly possible that they tried them. Perhaps their taste was unpleasant since the coffee cherry tastes like grass; or caused them a tachycardia since it also contains caffeine; or it made them hyperactive. Or all of the above. We would not be surprised if they considered it a fruit to stay alert and active during long marches, or for those most susceptible to caffeine, as something that should not even be touched.

The point is that in at least 499,500 years many humans or ancestors of humans must have discovered coffee. At first, only their cherries, not very tasty, although attractive, and that produced insomnia, tachycardia or hyperactivity in animals and humans. But surely more than one grabbed the taste for them. As they mastered fire and made better tools, they were able to grind wild cereals and cook. Someone, maybe taken to it for a day with nothing else to eat, chewed the coffee seeds and became fond of them. Possibly the family’s grandmother toasted them, as she did with many other seeds, and it turned out that in this way they were more suitable for chewing. Another, perhaps the same grandmother, ground and threw them in boiling water, or they fell unintentionally into the water. As you know, the smell of ground roasted coffee is irresistible even to those who don't drink it, so the black concoction with the smell and taste of glory should have been tried and they liked it.

The tale of the hyperactive goats for eating coffee cherries and their shepherd, who brought the cherries to a monk, that toasted the seeds and discovered the coffee, is very attractive and marketable, but it seems to us a myth. Surely coffee was already known for thousands of years, but its use was not regular, and the ancient civilizations of the region had no writing that attested recipes or mentions of coffee. The nearest place with writing for at least 6000 years ago was Ancient Egypt, which did leave in its records many details about what they ate and drank. But it was quite far from Ethiopia. It is possible Ancient Egypt traded with merchants who arrived with coffee seeds among many other products, but no evidence has been found of pharaohs drinking coffee. That is a pity. We're sure they would have loved it.

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