15 November 2010
Beer – the origin of civilisation!
Once again the Fortean Times breaking News section contains gold. On Friday it had a link to a Livescience article concerning the role that beer may have played in the rise of civilisation.
Some archaeologists believe that Stone Age farmers domesticated cereals not so much to fill their stomachs but to turn the grains into beer. This is not a new argument but now one archaeologist believes that the evidence is getting stronger.
That people went to great lengths to obtain grains despite the hard work needed to make them edible, plus the knowledge that feasts were important community-building gatherings, support the idea that cereal grains were being turned into beer, said archaeologist Brian Hayden at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
"Beer is sacred stuff in most traditional societies," said Hayden, who is planning to submit research on the origins of beer to the journal Current Anthropology.
The advent of agriculture began in the Neolithic Period of the Stone Age about 11,500 years ago. Once-nomadic groups of people had settled down and were coming into contact with each other more often, spurring the establishment of more complex social customs that set the foundation of more-intricate communities.
Archaeological evidence suggests that until the Neolithic, cereals such as barley and rice constituted only a minor element of diets, most likely because they require so much labor to get anything edible from them — one typically has to gather, winnow, husk and grind them, all very time-consuming tasks.
Hayden said that he had seen that hard work for himself. "In traditional Mayan villages where I've worked, maize is used for tortillas and for chicha, the beer made there. Women spend five hours a day just grinding up the kernels."
However, sites in Syria suggest that people nevertheless went to unusual lengths at times just to procure cereal grains — up to 40 to 60 miles (60 to 100 km). One might speculate, Hayden said, that the labour associated with grains could have made them attractive in feasts in which guests would be offered foods that were difficult or expensive to prepare, and beer could have been a key reason to procure the grains used to make them.
"It's not that drinking and brewing by itself helped start cultivation, it's this context of feasts that links beer and the emergence of complex societies," Hayden said.
"In traditional feasts throughout the world, there are three ingredients that are almost universally present," he said. "One is meat. The second is some kind of cereal grain, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, in the form of breads or porridge or the like. The third is alcohol, and because you need surplus grain to put into it, as well as time and effort, it's produced almost only in traditional societies for special occasions to impress guests, make them happy, and alter their attitudes favourably toward hosts."
The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize.
Well this is good enough for me. It is delightful to know that beer, rather than being the cause of society’s ills in fact the cause of society’s creation!
I would raise a glass myself but for the fact that I am not allowed to drink alcohol at present… Bah!