How Long Have People Been Drinking Tea
Tea has long been the "beverage of humanity" and thanks to shifts in Western taste, is only becoming more popular. But how long have human beings been drinking tea? Many estimates number 1,000 to 2,000 years. When I was first learning about "The Queen of the Camellias," I was told it was 5,000 years ago that humans first discovered the evergreen—the famous anecdote of Emperor Shen Nong sitting under a tree in 2773BC when a hapless leaf drifted into his cup of hot water. In fact, none of these figures are correct.
After a decade-long study, Chinese archaeologists recently announced proof that tea has been consumed for 6,000 years. Defined roots of Camellia sinensis as well as some pottery were found on Tianluo mountain in the Zhejiang Province (where our Mao Feng hails from), roots which were later found to contain L-Theanine—the amino acid unique to the tea plant.
The cultivators of the plant were Hemudu, a native culture that flourished between 7000 and 6000BC. At first, tea was consumed for medical purposes (often eaten, rather than steeped) and it's still believed that tea did not become a people's beverage until the Tang Dynasty (the first "Dynasty of Tea") in 608BC.
There's another myth that the first printed mention of tea was in the Chinese classic Book of Songs—however, the character used in the text to describe tea is Tu 荼, which, though it looks very similar to Cha (tea, Camellia sinensis) 茶, is technically one stroke different. Most scholars now believe those poems refer to sowthistle, a bitter herb that was consumed at the time, completely unrelated to the tea plant.
It's incredibly humbling to immerse yourself into a tradition that began before the pyramids in Egypt were being built. I might even argue that tea is prepared and consumed most similarly to its ancient origins of any beverage today. And who knows, in another ten years perhaps there will be evidence of an even earlier consumption of tea. We can only wonder.