Friday, January 22, 2010

Brewing Up History

US archaeologist Patrick McGovern does archaeology that I could eagerly take to, quite unlike the archaeology I encountered as an undergraduate - parabolic dental arcades and detailed descriptions of molars not exactly being my cup or tea.

Frank Thadeusz, in an article in Spiegel Online (Dec 24/09), writes about McGovern:  "The expert on identifying traces of alcohol in prehistoric sites reckons the thirst for a brew was enough of an incentive to start growing crops."

That's right - beer (and wine and mead) not bread as the primary impetus for humans to learn how to plant and raise grains and other crops.  Has our understanding of human history been in the grip of some version of the Women's Christian Temperance Union?

Well no more!

Evidence suggests that "the craft of making alcohol spread rapidly to various locations around the world during the Neolithic period." McGovern
carried the theory much further, aiming at a complete reinterpretation of humanity's history. His bold thesis, which he lays out in his book "Uncorking the Past. The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverage," states that agriculture -- and with it the entire Neolithic Revolution, which began about 11,000 years ago -- are ultimately results of the irrepressible impulse toward drinking and intoxication.
McGovern finds traces and sometimes whole preserved samples of different alcoholic concoctions from around the world:

"Available evidence suggests that our ancestors in Asia, Mexico, and Africa cultivated wheat, rice, corn, barley, and millet primarily for the purpose of producing alcoholic beverages," McGovern explains. While they were at it, he believes, drink-loving early civilizations managed to ensure their basic survival.
The "hybrid swill" our Neolithic ancestors produced was nutritious and much easier to make than bread, although one scenario for manufacture isn't so appealing:

Lacking any knowledge of chemistry, prehistoric humans eager for the intoxicating effects of alcohol apparently mixed clumps of rice with saliva in their mouths to break down the starches in the grain and convert them into malt sugar...These pioneering brewers would then spit the chewed up rice into their brew. Husks and yeasty foam floated on top of the liquid, so they used long straws to drink from narrow necked jugs.

Thank goodness for modern brewing techniques and for centuries of the winemaker's art. (Although anyone who has ever tried it can attest to the effects of drinking beer through a straw!)

Perhaps as we raise a glass to our Neolithic forebears, we can find a reason in this new understanding of human history to take ourselves less seriously.


Ryhen | Mind Power said...

I've seen a documentary on National Geographic about beer and it has a segment that talks about this. Ain't it cool that we have the technology today to trace stuff like this way back thousands of years ago which help us formulate amazing theories about our origin. This is really nice. Your post contains some of the details that I missed. Now I can persuade my friends to use straw when drinking beer. Bottoms up!

ChrisJ said...


Yes, who knew?

Be careful using a straw! lol

askcherlock said...

I raise my glass to you! Can you pass me that straw, please? There are some serious issues floating through my brain that I would love to dull.

ChrisJ said...



Pearl said...

fallen fruit naturally ferments. other primates wait for it to ripen. do I recall seeing a story about elephants as well? some other mammal knowing when nature's booze season is. drunkenness, natural and timeless as death itself.

ChrisJ said...


You reminded me of the birds that eat the rowan berries and get drunk - and fly into the window.