Tea, the world’s favorite beverage (besides plain ol’ water), originated in ancient China, but researchers are only just discovering how time-honored the tradition of drinking tea really is. The earliest evidence of tea usage in China dates back more than 2100 years, according to a brand-new analysis of ancient plant matter from an imperial tomb located in Xi'an (ancient Chang'an), one end of the famed Silk Road. 

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences discovered the ancient tea leaves in the tomb of Emperor Jing (also known as Liu Qi), a Han Dynasty ruler who died in 141 BCE. They detail their findings in the journal Scientific Reports. They studied tiny crystals found on the ancient plant matter to determine that the leaves were actually from Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. They also dated tea remains from western Tibet to 1800 years ago, indicating that Chinese tea exports began hundreds of years before the “Tea Horse Road” opened up in the 600s.

Samples of the plant remains found in the tomb. Image credit: Houyuan Lu et al., Scientific Reports (2015)

The tea buds (the unopened leaves of the tea plant, known to make a better quality brew), found in a wooden box in the tomb, were not the only plant matter Emperor Jing had buried with him to enjoy in the afterlife. He was also buried with millet, rice, and chenopod, a type of weed used to make vegetable broth in ancient China. 

Previously, the earliest definitive evidence of ancient tea consumption (at least as a beverage rather than a medicine) was from a written mention of the drink in 59 BCE, though Chinese legend suggests that tea has been around much longer than that. This discovery provides solid, material evidence of the beverage’s longevity. 

[h/t: The Independent