Tea is the most widely consumed manufactured drink on the planet and has been entrenched in human culture for thousands of years. Tea has been at the center of political strife, is one of the most traded commodities in the global market, and is the official drink of dozens of countries, but where did it all start? The origins of tea stretch back millennia, and the consumption of tea leaves may stretch all the way back into prehistory.
Camellia sinensis, the plant that produces tea leaves, is native to the Yunnan province of China and grows natively in subtropical evergreen forests. Anthropologists speculate that our prehistoric ancestors must’ve stumbled upon the leaves while experimenting with the consumption of different leaves in the forest. Naturally, they would have found that the leaves provided boosts in energy, had a pleasant taste, and were easily available. As our ancestors learned to harness the elements, they quickly started experimenting with boiling leaves in water. In fact, it is speculated that the origins of Chinese herbal remedies are a result of boiling tea leaves with various other leaves, tree barks, and herbs.
After centuries of experimentation, tea was firmly established by the time of the Shang dynasty in China during 1766 B.C. At this point in history, tea came in three main varieties: black tea, which is fermented; green tea which is not fermented; and oolong and pouchong, which are semi-fermented. Tea became deeply entrenched in Chinese culture and created countless opportunities for tea farmers, became the subject of heavy taxation, as well a cultural symbol throughout Chinese history. Even their emperors were buried with tea, dating as far back as 2150 years ago.
A drink with so many natural qualities to it couldn’t be contained in China, and it quickly spread throughout Asia. Japan adopted the drink in 1191 when a Buddhist monk returned from studying in China and brought with him some powdered green tea leaves. Soon after, Japan fell in love with the drink and created a strict ritual based around the consumption of green tea. Tea first arrived in Europe around 1560 in Lisbon, and by 1610, the Dutch were commercially selling tea shipments and importing porcelain teapots from China. By 1644, the British were importing tea from China, and it quickly became a popular drink with the British Aristocratic class before being adopted by the culture at large. As the British Empire spread throughout the world, so did the consumption of tea.
Tea is such a fascinating drink due to its ties to human culture. Throughout human history, we’ve reached out to each other across oceans and vast landmasses and influence each other. Cultures share foods, technologies, and beliefs with one another, and their collaborative efforts have provided the world with countless wonders. Our first prehistoric ancestors experimented with boiling tea leaves, and now tea is enjoyed in homes, coffee shops, and restaurants all across the world.