Tea is one of the most popular drinks in the world, consumed by more than two-thirds of people globally. While it most likely originated much earlier, the earliest clear written evidence of tea drinking dates back to 59 BC, from China’s Western Han dynasty. It turns out that tea’s journey to world domination also started around that time.
Historians once thought that tea only reached northern China and Tibet in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). More recently, a 2016 study found evidence of tea travelling westward from the second century BC. They tested plant remains found in Xi’an from around 140 BC, and Ngari (Ali) in western Tibet from the second or third century AD. Xi’an was the starting point of the old Silk Road, which eventually extended from eastern China to the Middle East and parts of Africa. The Southwest Silk Road, running through Yunnan, was only opened in the seventh century, so it most likely arrived by the older Tea Horse Road.
The researchers knew the leaves were tea by testing for two phytochemicals, theanine and caffeine. While caffeine is a stimulant, theanine provides a relaxing effect – the winning combination largely responsible for the drink’s popularity. The Tibetan sample was accompanied by barley and other plants, resembling the traditional butter tea mixes with salt, tsampa (roasted barley flour) and ginger.
Today, there are hundreds of ways that tea is enjoyed, depending on personal and cultural preferences. The list of blends and accompanying foods seems endless – comment below with your favourites!