Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beer: The Spark of Civilization?

Which came first: Beer or Bread? According to a piece entitled "Did a thirst for beer spark civilization?" published last month in The Independent, not only did beer possible come first, but it may have been the reason marauding nomads gave up their wandering in exchange for settlements.

From the Independent article:
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 (Patrick) McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Alcoholic beverages have been found to have been made as far back as 9,000 years ago. Using a chew and spit method (where mastication and saliva mash the grain starches into simple sugars), alcoholic potables were made with a mixture of the mashed grains and indigenous fruits. But why did they choose to settle down and begin domestication?  Apparently, it might have come from a desire to stay close to their source of grain.
…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 alcoholic juice 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.
Whether you buy the theory or not (and it is very much a theory, even in the eyes of McGovern), the premise makes several other ponderous questions surface.  If beer has a central role in agriculture development, what other areas of society were affected?  Was "beer" consumed as just food products for energy's sake or was there conscious effort to consume it for the pleasure of alcohol’s “psychotropic” effects?  What would these "beers" even taste like (unless you’re Sam Calagione, in which case you already have tasted it)?

Circling back to the question of beer vs. bread – according to McGovern, beer would have come first. It would have been much simpler to make. “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.” The details of this theory and McGovern’s research can be found in his book Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages.

We’d love to hear your thoughts – does this theory have any validity, or is it just an academic fairy tale?



“Fermentation and civilization are inseparable.”
-John Ciardi

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