Did a thirst for beer spark civilization?

Michael Kan
Friday 15 January 2010 16:09 GMT
(Photograph courtesy of P. Kosty, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. )

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Louise Thomas

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Drunkenness, hangovers, and debauchery tend to come to mind when one thinks about alcohol and its effects. But could alcohol also have been a catalyst for human civilization?

According to archaeologist Patrick McGovern this may have been the case when early man decided to start farming. Why humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture could be the result of our ancestors’ simple urge for alcoholic beverages.

“Alcohol provided the initial motivation,” said McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “Then it got going the engine of society.”

As one of the leading experts on the study of ancient alcoholic brews, McGovern has found evidence showing that early man was making the beverage as far back as 9,000 years ago.

His earliest sample, which dates to 7000 BC, includes pottery shards found in a Neolithic village at the Jiahu site in China. By examining the clay shards, McGovern discovered traces of Tartaric acid, a compound found in alcoholic brews.

The makers of this particular ancient beverage would have relied on a more primitive brewing method. Specifically, their teeth and saliva. To allow for fermentation, they would have first chewed on wild rice, turning the starch into malt sugar. This would then be added to a mixture of honey, wild grapes and hawthorn fruit — all ingredients that could be found in their surroundings.

Happy Accident?

The pottery sherds in China, along with a pattern of ancient brews found in other regions of the world such as Africa and Mexico, have led McGovern to theorize that alcohol had a pivotal role for the development of early man.

Even as our ancestors had no understanding of chemistry at the time, they likely would have discovered how to create alcohol by accident. McGovern said perhaps a sprouted grain that had fermented by falling in a pool of water was picked up and eaten. Once consumed, those drops of alcohol juices would have hit the taster’s brain, causing them to wonder where they could get more.

“A main motivation for settling down and domesticating crops was probably to make an alcoholic beverage of some kind,” McGovern concluded. “People wanted to be closer to their plants so this leads to settlement.”

If this were true, the first farmers would have in fact been real ale brewers. Moreover, alcohol, which is often used to break down barriers between people, would have acted much in the same way it did thousands of years ago.

“Whenever we look at the Neolithic beverages and the domestication of these plants, we find that it was more of an egalitarian effort, with people working together,” McGovern said.

Make Beer Not Bread

But why not make bread instead of beer? McGovern said the latter was simply easier to create. Humans were only just beginning to cultivate plants, meaning that any bread made at the time would have hardly been the edible loafs we see now.

Alcohol also just tasted good, McGovern said. The drink’s more positive psychotropic effects — such as increased cheerfulness and confidence — would have attracted early man to try and consume more.

“I think most people see (this theory) as a very plausible scenario. But we don’t have all the evidence,” McGovern added.

Examining ancient pottery has been McGovern’s main avenue in finding this evidence since it can retain traces of the liquids it once stored. Unfortunately most pottery found in the world only dates back as far as 5,000 to 7,000 BC, he said.

Still, McGovern’s research has revealed new findings about ancient man through the use of biomolecular archaeology, a field he helped pioneer over the last two decades.

“We humans are organic. The clothes we have, the food we eat, all of this is organic,” McGovern said. “But before the last 25 years we didn’t have ways to find out what (ancient human beings) were eating, or what they were using to decorate their clothes with.”

"Alcohol was always present right from the beginning," McGovern said, adding that early man also relied on the beverage for rituals and medicinal purposes. In a new book, titled Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages, he further the details his research on the history of alcohol brewing.

As for his theory on how alcohol motivated man to adopt agriculture, McGovern said: “I just wanted to put it out there as a worldwide hypothesis. Then over time maybe the different pieces can be put together from across the world.”

Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

King Tut's funerary items: wine, but no beer for the afterlife

The Good, The Bad, and the Belly: The Facts About Ancient Beer

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