To understand the modern fascination with alcoholic beverages of all kinds, as well as the reasons why they are also targets of condemnation, we need to step back and take a longer view. Alcohol occurs in nature, from the depths of space to the primordial “soup” that may have generated the first life on Earth. Of all known naturally addictive substances, only alcohol is consumed by all fruit-eating animals. It forms part of an intricate web of interrelationships between yeasts, plants, and animals as diverse as the fruit fly, elephant, and human, for their mutual benefit and propagation. According to the “drunken monkey hypothesis,” most primates are physiologically “driven to drink,” and humans, with bodies and metabolisms adapted to the consumption of alcohol, are no exception. Like water, a fermented beverage refreshes and fills us up, but it does much more. Apart from the peoples in the Arctic and those at the southern tip of South America in Tierra del Fuego—dwelling in climates too harsh to support any sugar-rich plants—almost every known culture has produced its own alcoholic beverage. Signs of indigenous fermented drinks are also so far noticeably absent from Australia, perhaps owing to limited excavation there. The use of the hallucinogen pituri by Aborigines may be a later substitution for alcohol, as tobacco might have been for native North Americans.

Beyond the physiological imperative, the universality of fermented beverages in human societies cries out for even farther-reaching explanations. Certainly, the natural occurrence of fermentation, one of the key processes that humans harnessed during their Neolithic revolutions, provides part of the answer. Fermentation contributes nutrients, flavors, and aromas to food and drink—whether a lambic beer, Champagne, cheese, or tofu. It removes potentially harmful alkaloids, helps to preserve them because alcohol kills spoilage microorganisms, and decreases food-preparation time and hence fuel needs by breaking down complex constituents.

Moreover, alcoholic beverages within human cultures effectively transcend the natural process of fermentation. They have a long and widespread history as superb social lubricators. The great monuments of the human civilization—for example, the Egyptian pyramids and the Incan royal centers and irrigation works—were built by rewarding the workers with vast quantities of alcoholic refreshment. Today, fund-raising and political success can hardly be imagined without a liberal supply of drink. On any night in any part of the world you will find people gathered in bars, pubs, and drinking halls, conversing animatedly and relieving the stresses of the day.

Before modern medicines, alcoholic beverages were the universal palliative. The pharmacopeias of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Greece, and Rome depended on fermented beverages for treating every kind of ailment. They were also used as vehicles for dissolving and dispensing medicinal herbs, resins, and spices. Past peoples didn’t need science to tell them about alcohol’s antiseptic and antioxidant properties or other benefits that prolonged life and increased reproductive rates. They experienced or observed some of the beneficial effects firsthand.

The psychotropic effects of alcoholic beverages stoked our religious propensities worldwide. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the human odyssey began, is today awash in alcoholic beverages made from honey, sorghum, and millet. Virtually every important religious festival, celebration, or rite of passage—above all, those honoring ancestors—is marked by the presentation and drinking of a fermented beverage. Even in secular Western culture, where drinking alcohol is more of a recreational diversion than a religious passion, people follow distinct protocols in their consumption of the beverages, whether partaking of a favorite beverage at cocktail hour or carefully managing an intake of stimulants to prolong the frenzy of an all-night binge.

The close association between religious practices and alcohol attests to either firmly entrenched biological tendencies or long-established cultural traditions. In other words, investigating the consumption of alcoholic beverages highlights the classic dilemma in studying human society: are certain behaviors more the result of nature or of nurture? Around the world, the available archaeological, chemical, and botanical evidence attests to the close association between alcoholic beverages and religion. Except where alcohol has been proscribed or access to the divine has been achieved in other ways (e.g., through meditation, as in Hinduism and Buddhism), important religious ceremonies often center on an alcoholic beverage. In the West, the wine of the Eucharist is at the heart of Christian religious observances, and every important Jewish ceremony is marked by the drinking of a specific number of glasses of wine.

Other common cultural threads connecting alcoholic beverages and human culture run through my narrative. Some of these strands likely reflect the fact that our species arose in sub-Saharan Africa and then spread out to the rest of the world only about one hundred thousand years ago. Humans everywhere sought sugar-rich, naturally fermenting fruits, honey, grasses, tubers, and other ingredients for fermented beverages. These resources were often combined to make a stronger grog or a drink with more potent medical or psychotropic effects. The earliest inhabited sites in the Middle East, central Asia, China, Europe, Africa, and the Americas are replete with fermentable natural products. Where artwork and artifacts have survived, they support the idea that the preparation and use of fermented beverages during the Palaeolithic period was focused on an authority figure, the “shaman,” who oversaw a community’s religious and social needs. Even in this early period, tight bonds must have existed between fermented beverages, religion, music, dance, and sex. Ocher pigmentation of burials and bones, probably symbolizing blood and sometimes the fermented beverage itself, is widespread. Musical instruments were made from specific bird bones, probably because of the associations with their mating calls, dances, and other unusual and seemingly otherworldly behaviors. People donned the costume of birds such as the crane and danced to the music.

By the Neolithic period, humans around the globe had developed very similar methods of saccharifying the starches in cereals to sugars by chewing or sprouting. All the most widely planted cereals in the world today—wheat, rice, corn, barley, and sorghum—were processed by these methods, and the available evidence suggests that the initial domestication of these grains in the Middle East, Asia, Mexico, and the Sahel of Africa was motivated by a desire to increase alcoholic-beverage production. The extraordinary transformation of the minuscule teosinte into maize is difficult to explain unless humans were initially attracted to the plant’s sweet stalks, ripe for fermentation, and then, over millennia, bred it selectively for larger and sweeter kernels. The methods for making and drinking cereal brews—including early Mesopotamian barley beer, Chinese rice wine, and American corn chicha—were also broadly similar around the world and remain so in many places: ferment a wort in a large, open-mouthed jar, and then drink from the same vessel with a long straw, usually sharing the brew with a group of family or friends. Alcoholic beverages made from sweet fruits, including grape, fig, date, and cacao, probably also prompted the domestication of these plants.

One particularly surprising result from our biomolecular archaeological investigations was the discovery that the earliest-known alcoholic beverages came onto the world scene at about the same time—the early Neolithic period, ca. 7000-8000 B.C.—on either side of Asia. In the West, we find the resinated wines of the northern mountainous region of the Near East; five thousand kilometers away, we find the Jiahu grog of China, made by combining rice, hawthorn fruit, grapes, and honey. I have proposed that ideas and traditions of plant domestication and beverage making must have traveled piecemeal, with other aspects of culture, across the expanses of Central Asia, following a prehistoric predecessor of the Silk Road. But an equally compelling hypothesis that would explain these facts, as well as the emergence of new beverages at so many times and places across the planet, is that humans are by nature both innovative and attracted to fermented drinks. In short, if alcoholic beverages are such an integral part of human life, perhaps we are “programmed” with the urge to make and drink them, without needing to invoke any cultural traditions.

This article is excerpted with permission from Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages by Patrick E. McGovern, published by University of California Press.


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Man, The Drinker By Trey Popp
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