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How Beer Gave Us Civilization 325

Posted by samzenpus
from the the-cause-and-solution-to-all-of-life's-problems dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Jeffrey P. Khan writes in the NY Times about how recent anthropological research suggests that human's angst of anxiety and depression ultimately results from our transformation, over tens of thousands of years, from biologically shaped, almost herd-like prehistoric tribes, to rational and independent individuals in modern civilization. The catalyst for suppressing the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive was fermented fruit or grain. 'Once the effects of these early brews were discovered, the value of beer must have become immediately apparent,' writes Khan. 'With the help of the new psychopharmacological brew, humans could quell the angst of defying those herd instincts. Conversations around the campfire, no doubt, took on a new dimension: the painfully shy, their angst suddenly quelled, could now speak their minds.' Examining potential beer-brewing tools in archaeological remains from the Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, the team concludes that 'brewing of beer was an important aspect of feasting and society in the Late Epipaleolithic' era. In time, humans became more expansive in their thinking, as well as more collaborative and creative. A night of modest tippling may have ushered in these feelings of freedom — though, the morning after, instincts to conform and submit would have kicked back in to restore the social order. Today, many people drink too much because they have more than average social anxiety or panic anxiety to quell — disorders that may result, in fact, from those primeval herd instincts kicking into overdrive. But beer's place in the development of civilization deserves at least a raising of the glass. As the ever rational Ben Franklin supposedly said, 'Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.'"
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How Beer Gave Us Civilization

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 17, 2013 @05:37PM (#43198815)

    Dogs, language, agriculture, evolution... the difficult part is saying what didn't give us civilization.

    • Agriculture may have given us civilization but beer gave us agriculture [spiegel.de].

      • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:00PM (#43198951)
        Also, in the fertile crescent lands (Egypt especially), beer was one of the few (health-wise) safe means of hydrating yourself (I wouldn't want to touch the water of Nile, much less drink it [humanecologyreview.org]), and also an important source of nutrients other than starch. (Of course, "beer" probably meant something slightly different back then, don't imagine the pasteurized clear liquid we're in the habit of drinking nowadays.)
        • by Immerman (2627577) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:35PM (#43199137)

          Indeed. *Real* beer needs to be chewed.

        • It was the same in Europe until relatively recently, the Mayflower landed where it did because it had run out of beer and needed to find clean water.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by MightyMartian (840721)

        I doubt that claim as well. Beer was a byproduct of agriculture, not a causative agent.

        • by Immerman (2627577) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:56PM (#43199277)

          Actually, considering that many animals show evidence of intentionally seeking out alcohol (overripe fruit, etc.), and some such as elephants actually make it themselves (pulping and burying fruit that they later dig up and consume), I'm willing to bet human alcohol production predates agriculture by a pretty big margin. Admittedly that was probably more stuff like wine, mead, and possibly kefir (fermented milk). Beer is after all a rather complicated and roundabout way of producing alcohol, and I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't get invented until there were a bunch of bored, thirsty folks sitting around one winter wishing they had more wine, and that fruit kept as well as all the worthless low-sugar grain they had stockpiled. Necessity is the mother of invention after all.

        • by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Monday March 18, 2013 @12:38AM (#43200761)

          You can make some pretty good alcohol from honey, which is already known during the hunter/gatherer phase of civilization. Technically not beer, but as quite a few similar properties, especially when it comes to drinking safety.

    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:17PM (#43199025) Journal

      Agriculture gave us civilization. Agriculture allowed people to transition from fully nomadic or nearly fully nomadic lifestyles to settled ones. It allowed relatively small areas to be settled by sedentary populations and then gave the techniques to support the growth of those civilizations.

      Why anyone would attribute booze or dogs, or imagine that somehow we were fucking cattle before we started to drink (and I'm sure humans started to drink a looong time before we ever settled down) is beyond me. I guess you've got to sell something to a newspaper, but there's little enough mystery as to why civilization arose, and certainly there are enough examples to show the same thing over and over again... Agriculture, agriculture, agriculture.

      • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:22PM (#43199061)
        That's a little bit too simplified. Truth is that there seems to have been a feedback loop between all of the following: grain agriculture, beer brewing, division of labour, social stratification, record keeping/taxation, and state-organized religion (time keeping/agrarian year planning). I guess one could draw a nice graph showing how every one of these supported all the remaining ones.
        • by MightyMartian (840721) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:25PM (#43199085) Journal

          The first evidence of the growing of grain predates the first evidence of beer by a considerable length of time. We don't know all the answers, but we do know that the earliest grain crops were grown in northern Iraq and northern Iran, and that it appears that it started as a sort seasonal planting by semi-nomadic groups that would return to harvest the grain later. The innovation, whatever drove it, was to be able to learn sufficiently advanced techniques to increase yields so that you could stay by the crops; to defend them, to maintain them. That's the feedback right there.

          Beer is something that comes along, by the looks of it, after we have pretty much all the basics of sedentary agricultural societies already in place.

          • Beer brewing leaves an archeological trace? All you need is a container.

            Apes get drunk on naturally occurring alcohol. I'm sure early hunter gatherers did the same. I'd be surprised if they didn't learn how to let the fruits lay around to make alcohol when they wanted.

            That said, beer came after fruit wines. Sugar vs. Starch, simpler process.

            • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @07:02PM (#43199333)

              Beer brewing leaves an archeological trace? All you need is a container.

              On ancient Middle-Eastern archaeological sites, you find beer breweries and bread bakeries side by side. It's virtually as regular as the floor plan of post-11th century Benedictine monasteries in Europe.

              • They never made bread before that period? What signs where left of hunter gatherer grain processing? How would archeologists tell the difference between what they were doing with the grain?

                Nobody addresses the fruit wine, much more likely path to first booze? Even monkeys get drunk when the fruit is dropping.

                • by AK Marc (707885) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @08:22PM (#43199813)
                  I've seen plenty of grain-processing tools. No, you can't tell 10,000 years later whether the grain ground up was going in beer or flour for baking. But baking and beer could be determined by the oven/stove setup. You sound like a smart person with a large gap of knowledge who is asking stupid questions without any deference to authority. If someone says "it was done this way" don't argue unless you know that to be wrong. Otherwise, it makes you look stupid. Go take a college class if you really want to know. There are thousands of years of anthropology you are asking for in a couple sound bites. It isn't going to work very well, and the ones persistent enough to continue answering are likely ones that don't know that much, but enjoy the arguing.

                  And yes, sugar-heavy fruits were likely fermented well before grains.
                  • by HornWumpus (783565) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @09:16PM (#43200083)

                    I'm not arguing about the oven/stove setup.

                    I'm saying there is no way of knowing if hunter gatherers had devised a way of making beer like beverages because they would have left no trace.

                    This is all happening thousands of years before the period that you reference, which is clearly after the agricultural revolution.

                    If you are discussing which came first ag revolution or beer, citing references clearly after the ag. revolution doesn't really advance the discussion. Permanent bakeries/breweries aren't in question. When you say 'it was done this way' be sure you are talking about the correct era. Otherwise, it makes you look stupid.

                    How did hunter gatherers process grain to eat? If they made gruel it is easy to imagine they stumbled onto fermentation and made small batches during harvest periods. It's hard to imagine anybody 'inventing' bread without simultaneously inventing 'beer'. Especially in light of drinking natural fruit wines.

          • You're certainly right, grain crops as such do predate all the things I've mentioned, but as far as I know, all the other developed quite synchronously later, together with organized irrigation works (which, by then, were basically large-scale state projects). The very first agricultural communities did not do any of this, but for that matter, they also suffered horribly, nutrition-wise. Paleopathology of the first agrarian communities draws a horrible picture of malnutrition (pollen analysis suggests the d
          • by Immerman (2627577)

            Makes sense - beer is high technology when it comes to alcohol production. No reason to even consider grain unless you don't have a good source of sugar - like say you've settled down in one place and have mountains of grain, but not much fruit, honey, milk, etc. with which to make alcohol. Desperate men and all that...

            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by Anonymous Coward

              Come on people! Did none of you watch the Discovery Channel, at least before it changed to a reality TV format?

              There are countless tribes in the Amazon, Africa, Polynesia, etc who ferment grains and starches. None of them practice agriculture to any large extent, and many are purely hunter-gatherer.

              Spit into a bowl of pulp-of-some-tree, mix, wait, get drunk. This isn't rocket science. We've clearly been doing it long before agriculture.

              And animals do it, too, apparently, if other posts in this thread are to

              • by Immerman (2627577) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @10:06PM (#43200255)

                Sure, alcohol production is easy and probably spectacularly ancient, but alcohol != beer. Fermenting starches is a more involved process than sugars.

                It's also not fair to compare modern-day hunter-gatherer societies with pre-agricultural ones - just because some cultures didn't see widespread adoption of particular technologies (agriculture, metalworking, etc) doesn't mean they spent the last 10,000 years in stasis, it just means they weren't subject to the same pressures that drove other cultures to embrace them. For example there's no shortage of food in a rainforest, and so no incentive to pursue agriculture beyond encouraging particularly tasty or useful plants to grow in convenient locations. Ironworking appears to have been known in North America, but very few iron tools were made, possibly because stone tools had evolved far beyond anything seen in Eurasia. The wheel was known in Central America, but apparently only used for children's toys, who knows why.

                Don't make the mistake of thinking that civilization advances along some particular path - if not for the combination of gunpowder and potent bioweapons bred in European cities the Americas would look far different today, and quite possibly have taught Europeans a thing to two in their own right.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Why anyone would attribute booze or dogs, or imagine that somehow we were fucking cattle before we started to drink

        Poor choice of words, I don't think bestiality has anything to do with it. But the fact is, we STILL follow the herd. We ARE Cattle.

        When you said "dogs" was that an iPhone autocorrect and you meant "drugs"? Dogs were the first domestic animals and we've had them for over 100,000 years. Domestication of animals played a huge part in our becoming civilized.

        You're right that we certainly were drin

    • Here's a simple way to rule out things that didn't give us civilization. Were there civilizations without those things?

      If so that would indicate that item is not required for civilization. The Maui of New Zealand and other polynesians for example did not have dogs or beer but certainly met the requirements of a civilization. Dogs and beer are therefore not a requirement of civilization.

      • Well i'm a fool. Looked it up and it turns out the Polynesians did have dogs (the Kuri). No beer though.

    • Banks.

  • by Tristao (2562287) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @05:38PM (#43198821)
    "To alcohol! The cause of--and solution to--all of life's problems." Homer (the one not from Greece).
  • by peragrin (659227) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @05:40PM (#43198827)

    The real reason beer was important was that it was clean water. brewing beer kills off most of the bad things in fresh water supplies.

    Lower inhibitions isn't a factor until after we had started forming cities and groups of more than a couple hundred.

    • by multiben (1916126)
      Interesting if true, but I'm sceptical. My understanding has always been that beer is a diuretic and not a good source of fluids as it will dehydrate you over the longer term.
      • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:07PM (#43198989)
        Why do you think that beer and (watered) wine were so popular with ancient and medieval populations? In most places, you could basically only choose between being constantly tipsy, or getting killed by some nasty infection (it you were lucky you'd "only" get some progressively debilitating parasitic infection instead). It wasn't until the Roman period that people bothered to provide large masses of population with water that was actually safe to drink, and even then, the conditions in the Middle East never allowed for that with contemporary level of technology. (Romans at least had hills, clean mountain streams, and lots of building stone for aqueducts.)
        • It wasn't until the Roman period that people bothered to provide large masses of population with water that was actually safe to drink, and even then, the conditions in the Middle East never allowed for that with contemporary level of technology. (Romans at least had hills, clean mountain streams, and lots of building stone for aqueducts.)

          You mean except for things like the Persian qanats: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qanat [wikipedia.org]

          • Well, Iran is pretty benign in this respect, at least comparatively; what I actually had in mind was the lowland Mesopotamia with swamps everywhere and Nile in Egypt with its own share of health issues. These are the regions where building long-range infrastructure for bringing fresh water from distant sources was virtually impossible, and they were also areas with a very large concentration of people. Not a healthy combination, this one.
            • by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @08:24PM (#43199825)

              From the article: "Qanats are also called krz (or krz from Persian: ) (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, derived from Persian: ), kahan (from Persian: ), kahriz/khriz (Azerbaijan); khettara (Morocco); galería (Spain); falaj (United Arab Emirates and Oman); Kahn (Baloch) or foggara/fughara (North Africa).[1] Alternative terms for qanats in Asia and North Africa are kakuriz, chin-avulz, and mayun. Common variants of qanat in English include kanat, khanat, kunut, kona, konait, ghanat, ghundat.

              The qanat technology is known to have been developed by the Persian people sometime in the early 1st millennium BC and to have spread from there slowly west- and eastward.[2][3][4][5][6]

              The value of a qanat is directly related to the quality, volume and regularity of the water flow. Much of the population of Iran and other arid countries in Asia and North Africa historically depended upon the water from qanats; the areas of population corresponded closely to the areas where qanats are possible."

              For my money substituting beer for water is a non runner.

      • by MightyMartian (840721) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:19PM (#43199035) Journal

        The early beers and wines had pretty low alcohol levels, so the downside of alcohol consumption was likely pretty minimal. I agree that if they'd gone around drinking some of the wild high alcohol beers and wines out on the market now, hydration would have been a massive problem.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Beer back then may have had a lower alcohol content then. The boiling of water is the first factor in killing harmful bacteria. Fruit was added after the mashing process (extracting of sugar from grain) to add the yeast needed for brewing. From what I understand, beer was the reason that ancient civilizations started to farm so they could harvest grain.

        • by Osgeld (1900440)

          I would argue bread is a bigger factor of cultivation, but beer is a close runner up

          • I would argue bread is a bigger factor of cultivation, but beer is a close runner up

            Back in the day, beer was basically fermented bread. Not only could you drink it, but you could CHEW it, since it had a lot of solids....

      • by Osgeld (1900440)

        beer "back then" had extremely low alcohol content, thats why they could drink it morning noon and night without catching more than a slight buzz

    • Ever tried to drink nothing but beer for a week? I know a guy that did, by the end of it his teeth were loose, gums bleeding, regular blackouts, sallow skin, he was a mess. If the alcohol is strong enough to kill germs, it won't do you any good, plus as another poster pointed out it is a diuretic, you'll be thirstier by the end than when you started. So I'm going to go ahead and call bullshit on that particular theory.

      And from a quick glance at the story, this theory doesn't seem that far behind it.

      • by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2NO@SPAMgdargaud.net> on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:07PM (#43198993) Homepage
        Well, beer in the old days wasn't as strong as know, so yes you could leave mostly drinking only beer. Check out 'small beer [wikipedia.org]'. Workers had two gallons or so of the stuff to drink daily!
        • The only citation in that article is a recipe to make the stuff. Not to mention that our early ancestors would have needed industrial brewing facilities to produce the amount of beer they would have needed to survive, even if that were possible.

      • by Aranykai (1053846)

        And I'm going to go ahead and call bullshit on your anecdote, sorry.

        The whole "x is a diuretic and makes you thirstier than before you drank it" is patent nonsense. This is not what a diuretic does to the body. Also, ancient beer approaches high 90s in percentile water by volume, (hint, most beer today is still over 90% water by volume).

        As to the health effects of drinking nothing but beer, you are aware that early travelers had nothing but beer to drink for the majority of their sea voyages, right?

        • And I'm going to go ahead and call bullshit on your anecdote, sorry.

          The whole "x is a diuretic and makes you thirstier than before you drank it" is patent nonsense.

          http://ezinearticles.com/?Beer:-Pros-and-Cons&id=240782 [ezinearticles.com]

          Beer is 98% Water, but Still a Diuretic

          Although 98% water, beer is a diuretic because it contains alcohol. That means you should not drink too much and never replace water with beer. To avoid headaches and hangovers caused by dehydration you should always have a glass of water between each glass of alcohol you drink.

          As to the health effects of drinking nothing but beer, you are aware that early travelers had nothing but beer to drink for the majority of their sea voyages, right?

          Utter bullshit. Even in the rum days a shot of 'grog', heavily watered rum, was a treat.

    • by jlowery (47102)
      I don't know that beer will kill microbes... read this [thecrimson.com].
      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        It isn't the alcohol in the beer that kills germs, it's the brewing process itself. If your tappers (or mugs) are dirty you'll get sick.

      • by Immerman (2627577)

        Beer may not, but the beer-making process will.

    • > Lower inhibitions isn't a factor until after we had started forming cities and groups of more than a couple hundred

      I don't know about that, aren't the Vikings supposed to have had a rule of thumb that you should never implement any major plan until you've discussed it while drunk? Of course that's another agricultural society, even if they weren't big on cities and the like.

    • by Guppy (12314)

      The real reason beer was important was that it was clean water. brewing beer kills off most of the bad things in fresh water supplies.

      During the construction of America's Transcontinental Railroad, a similar phenomenon was noted with regards to tea. The Chinese workers would prepare large containers of tea in the morning, then drink it lukewarm throughout the day, as their main source of hydration. And while tea leaf extracts have some antimicrobial properties, it was primarily the boiling process which sanitized the water, reducing the outbreaks of dysentery that were common among other workers.

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience [pbs.org]

  • by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2NO@SPAMgdargaud.net> on Sunday March 17, 2013 @05:41PM (#43198839) Homepage
    For those who want to know more, I just read this interesting and quite complete book on the archeology of alcohol [amazon.com]. It would be worth a book review on /., but I'm not good at writing those.
  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @05:49PM (#43198871)

    But it certainly makes you think you are!

    And handsomer, too!

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Yeah? Then why were so many great writers drinkers? Although I've found that pot oils creativity more... if you can remember your idea by the time you find a pencil.

      Part of Nobots (not finished, it's in my journal) was written in a bar. Of course, it has to be cleaned up a bit when I get sober.

      I don't feel handsomer when I'm drinking, but the women certainly look better.

  • You lost me at... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kwyj1b0 (2757125) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @05:50PM (#43198879)

    " ... to rational and independent individuals in modern civilization"

    I'm not sure where the author is really coming from, but he seems to claim that modern individuals are (a) less herd-like, and (b) innovation was helped by drinking

    The only reason we are less herd-like (and we still are very herd like in our thinking - just look at how certain topics are still taboo) is that our survival doesn't directly depend on acceptance by those around us. Sure, I might not have a job if I'm a douche-bag, but chances are I can still find a way to survive. On the other hand, getting kicked out of a prehistoric tribe meant you would pretty much have to hunt alone (assuming you ran away from the tribe before they butchered you), and you wouldn't survive for long.

    Also, the reaction to alcohol varies by culture. You have this idea that people lose inhibition when they drink, but in some cultures they become more harmonious (less likely to cause trouble or act out - see here [sirc.org]).

    I'd say that the leaps and bounds in infrastructure and tech have allowed us to lead more solitary lives, which also means we have less inclination to conform. Now, if you can claim that a lot of innovation/changes was created under the influence (Windows 8 design? ;) ), that would be cool (I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just creative).

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      I'm not sure where the author is really coming from, but he seems to claim that modern individuals are (a) less herd-like

      You're right, the herding instinct is so strong most don't even notice it. Take a drive down the interstate with your cruise set at 5 mph below the speed limit sometime and you'll see how strong the herding instinct is. No traffic for miles, then a herd comes up behind you and follow you for a while, one guy will pass you and everyone else will follow him. The solitary car is rare.

      Politic

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Sunday March 17, 2013 @05:51PM (#43198889) Homepage Journal

    TFS says "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." That goes along with an old Irish saying: "God invented alcohol to keep the Irish from conquering the world."

  • Step One “We admitted that we were powerless over our alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable”. I'll drink to that....
  • Errant twaddle (Score:5, Informative)

    by Stirling Newberry (848268) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:04PM (#43198973) Homepage Journal
    Domestication of grains starts 2000 years, at latest, from the earliest brewing of beer. The "beer hypothesis" also lacks skeletal evidence, and also genomic evidence. More interesting is the rapid spread of later lactose tolerance, which has an extremely high selective index. Also contradicting the reductive understanding of the role of beer is the lack of pottery containers for it in many early cultures, or lack of evidence for brewing in places such as China, even though rice and grain cultivation were quite early there.

    So summary: beer is late, it is missing from many cultures, and the genomics would support a much higher selection for digesting of it –as they do with milk –if a small area invented brewing and this was the core civilizing agent.

    further, linguistic convergence argues for language being close to 100,000 years old, and cultural progressions, that is "fashion" are as much as 70,000 years old. The understanding of band organization - that is groups smaller than tribes that do not produce a surplus, and there fore have little to no "state" apparatus or long term castes - is not the placid realm before angst. The Australian aboriginal mythology is filled with a sense of angst as their climate changed, and they are band organized.

    There are many better hypotheses for the role of intoxication in human history. Far more likely beer takes off as soon as agriculture becomes intertwined with water, because over the long term the water becomes fouled. It also has an important role when economic castes in settlements start to become forces in themselves. It may have been used as part of combat, as the only medication they had.

    This doesn't even pass a simple date match of events to create a timeline.

  • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @06:12PM (#43199009)

    For the record, here, in a letter addressed to André Morellet in 1779, is what Benjamin Franklin actually did say:

    Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.

  • This doesn't make sense. There are a lot of people and even cultures that do not do beer or other alcohol. This article really sounds like a solution in search of a problem.

  • Fermented beverages are important because they tend to kill off food-borne and water-borne pathogens, pathogens that would frequently just kill you.

    Not thinking about what used to be in your food and water because you get drunk is just a pleasant side effect.

  • Friar Tuck: This is grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the Lord intended a more divine means of consumption. Let us give praise to our maker and glory to his bounty by learning about... BEER.
  • old news.. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by houbou (1097327) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @08:43PM (#43199929) Journal
    Seriously, I remember myself reading this stuff over 35 yrs ago in various books and magazines. Why is this news today?

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