McGovern doesn’t go so far as to credit beer or wine for turning our species of wanderers into a society of farmers. And he allows that alcoholic beverages aren’t quite universal.
“I should say, there are certain parts of the world where humans have not been able to do a fermented beverage, especially the Arctic and Antarctic,” he conceded at the Museum tasting. “Some people say you can take bear fat and ferment that into an alcoholic beverage, but I don’t think so.” There is also little in the archaeological record of North America, for instance, indicating that such beverages played a role here—though they appear to have been widespread in Central and South America, which is something of a conundrum. “These things all go back to earlier times,” says Solomon Katz. “And it’s a matter of time before the empty slots are filled in. It’s sort of like the periodic table of brewing.”
The evidence McGovern has developed from organic residues in old pottery sherds adds to a growing area of inquiry into the ways that cooking, eating, and drinking have shaped human culture and even human biology. Harvard biological anthropologist Robert Wrangham has recently argued that the invention of cooking is responsible for some of the hallmark characteristics of human anatomy. By essentially pre-digesting their food with fire, his thinking goes, our evolutionary ancestors were able to lose the strong jaws and huge digestive tracts that typify our primate cousins (who need them for the energy-intensive task of breaking down raw food), thereby freeing up metabolic resources to fuel a marked expansion of brain function.
Wrangham’s hypothesis has stirred considerable controversy. Physical evidence for the controlled use of fire some 2 million years ago, when these anatomical changes are thought to have taken place, is all but nonexistent. But his emphasis on food-processing, which McGovern shares, has been welcomed by some anthropologists who aren’t ready to swallow Wrangham’s theory whole.
“I always say that the flip side of agriculture is cuisine,” says Solomon Katz. “There’s very little food, with the exception of fruit, that we consume that isn’t highly processed, either by grinding or otherwise. In a sense, we’ve replaced our teeth with our stones.
“In other words, you can’t have agriculture without having a lot of food-processing to go with it. And [fermentation] is just one good example of the kind of food-processing that takes place, but it’s a very important one because it’s primary. From the point of view of being able to control fermentation, even though people didn’t understand exactly what it was, they knew what the end products were. And the end products were good and, it turns out, very healthy.”
Even, perhaps, the ones coaxed toward fermentation by human saliva. This is actually a method that survives today in various traditional cultures. “In remote areas of Japan and Taiwan,” McGovern writes, “you can still find women sitting around a large bowl, masticating and spitting rice juice into the vessel as they prepare the rice wine for a marriage ceremony. In fact, this method of making an alcoholic beverage from a grain spans the globe, from the corn beers or chichas of the Americas to the sorghum and millet beers of Africa.”
McGovern and some others think that such beverages were a big part of what gave wild cereals their initial importance. “Rice, sorghum, millet, wheat, barley, corn —these are the main grains and all of them probably have their origin as fermented beverages, as far as being domesticated is concerned,” he says. “In the case of corn, one of the hypotheses, which I think makes a lot of sense, is that you’ve got this really strange-looking wild specimen called teosinte, which only has a few kernels on it and hardly has any nutritive value and is not very sweet—and you really can’t make a bread from that original teosinte plant. But the stalk of the wild plant has a lot of sugary juice, and just by breaking the stalk you can squeeze out a sugary substance. You can also chew it. There are, in early caves in the Americas, wads of wild corn that was being chewed. Well, once you get out that liquid, you would get natural fermentation probably occurring fairly easily. So that might be the reason they started focusing on that plant, crossing and recrossing it. It took multiple genetic changes to finally get to the corn we’re accustomed to.”
If your palate yearns for a taste of something to which it is thoroughly unaccustomed, Dogfish Head’s Chicha is all gone. But there are still bottles of Chateau Jiahu and Midas Touch floating around, as well as Calagione and McGovern’s 2008 homage to the Aztecs, Theobroma. And while the pair has no current plans for a fifth vintage, there’s no telling where the spirit might move them next.
“Out there in Central Asia, the Mongolian people are lactose intolerant,” McGovern muses among his shelves of chemical vials. “But if you take mare’s milk from horses and you ferment it, you actually change the sugar into a form you can digest. And that’s what they did. It’s called koumiss, and it’s a really important part of their culture ...”
He pauses to wonder why so many archaeologists and anthropologists have passed over the history of alcoholic beverages without comment. In the sticky yellow residues and crimson stains others have looked upon as dregs, McGovern sees the markings of a deeper human story. “What I really find amazing is how people have ignored this,” he says. “These drinks reflect how our species has developed on this planet—by taking whatever we can in nature and making it into something really good.”
Jan|Feb 2010 contents
Man, The Drinker By Trey Popp
Photography by Candace diCarlo
Three of McGovern’s alcoholic archaeological finds, resurrected by Dogfish Head Brewery.