Brian Hayden and colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Canada provide new support for this theory in an article published this month (and online last year) in the Journal of Archeological Method and Theory. Examining potential beer-brewing tools in archaeological remains from the Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, the team concludes that “brewing of beer was an important aspect of feasting and society in the Late Epipaleolithic” era.Orgies or Beer? You Only Get One (Gizmodo)
Anthropological studies in Mexico suggest a similar conclusion: there, the ancestral grass of modern maize, teosinte, was well suited for making beer — but was much less so for making corn flour for bread or tortillas. It took generations for Mexican farmers to domesticate this grass into maize, which then became a staple of the local diet.
Once the effects of these early brews were discovered, the value of beer (as well as wine and other fermented potions) must have become immediately apparent. With the help of the new psychopharmacological brew, humans could quell the angst of defying those herd instincts. Conversations around the campfire, no doubt, took on a new dimension: the painfully shy, their angst suddenly quelled, could now speak their minds.
But the alcohol would have had more far-ranging effects, too, reducing the strong herd instincts to maintain a rigid social structure. In time, humans became more expansive in their thinking, as well as more collaborative and creative. A night of modest tippling may have ushered in these feelings of freedom — though, the morning after, instincts to conform and submit would have kicked back in to restore the social order.
Some evidence suggests that these early brews (or wines) were also considered aids in deliberation. In long ago Germany and Persia, collective decisions of state were made after a few warm ones, then double-checked when sober. Elsewhere, they did it the other way around.
Enter Patrick E. McGovern. (Buy him dinner first.) His 2009 book, Uncorking the Past, lofts the idea that humans first cultivated grains not for making bread, but for brewing alcoholic beverages.Beer Map: Two Giant Brewers, 210 Brands (NPR) Monopoly in action. Support your local microbrew! (or brew beer at home
It's possible we have been drinking alcohol for a couple of million years. The "drunken monkey hypothesis" proposed by biologist Robert Dudley attempts to explain why our bodies have evolved such a happy capacity for metabolizing ethanol. From Uncorking the Past:
On average, both abstainers and bingers have shorter, harsher lives. The human liver is specially equipped to metabolize alcohol, with about 10 percent of its enzyme machinery, including alcohol dehydrogenase, devoted to generating energy from alcohol. Our organs of smell can pick up wafting alcoholic aromas, and our other senses detect the myriad compounds that permeate ripe fruit.
For eons primates have been getting soused on overripe fruit, fermented honey, or collected, macerated grains that have gone off after sitting overnight. (Primates are hardly the only animals that get tipsy, either, although sadly the tales of drunken elephants are probably mostly hype.) We spent a couple of million years getting drunk whenever we could—enough that we evolved bodies that could better handle the hard stuff—but probably picked it up where we could find it or made simple fermented drinks like pulque as circumstance allowed.
But then one day a few tens of thousands of years ago someone got the bright idea to cultivate. I'm sure it seemed like a great idea at first. Who wouldn't want to get drunk whenever they chose? (A stocked liquor cabinet is certainly how I measure my own personal success.) And no less a man than Benjamin Franklin, one of the architects of modern society, acknowledged that "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
Little did that intrepid farmer know that in just a few generations the idyllic, if unpredictable era of lazy browsing, casual sex, and occasional fruit-fueled orgies would give way to the terrible force of civilization—all so we could bring home a six-pack every night.