For The Love Of Alcohol (edited)


“Alcoholic beverages were a by-product of civilization, not central to it. Even the website of the German Brewers’ Federation takes the line that beer was likely an offshoot of bread making by the first farmers.” ~Andrew Curry

For more than 9,000 years humans have maintained a long-term relationship with alcohol. More than just a mind altering substance, alcohol has fueled the development of arts, language, and religion. “Our ape ancestors started eating fermented fruits on the forest floor, and that made all the difference, we were pre-adapted for consuming alcohol,” says Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College. This “drunken monkey” hypothesis suggests that monkeys who could get to the fermenting fruit at the bottom of the forest floor faster had higher chances of survival and copulation rates. Fermenting fruit has more sugar calories making it a high calorie food source and, one that would have served our active primate ancestors well. The ethanol properties, although low in concentration, would have had antimicrobial properties to help fight diseases as well. There is very little scientific evidence of animals in the wide ever getting enough alcohol from fermented fruit to exhibit “drunken behavior.” It would be more along the lines of a “satisfied glow.”

Evidence suggests that a critical gene mutation that occurred in our last common ancestor of African apes, dated at about 10 million years ago, made it possible for humans to digest ethanol at a rate of 40 times higher than before. This gene, ADH4, created an enzyme that made it possible for our bodies to break down alcohol faster and enjoy more of the overripe bounty on the forest floor, without suffering ill effects. “You could say, we came out of the trees to get a beer.”

Homo Sapien Turns Homo Imbibens

After our discovery of the pleasant side effects to fermenting fruit, it’s highly probable that we then made the transition from nomadic life to a more settled existence. You could say we “settled down to start farming for booze,” and food. Thus, Homo sapien turns Homo imbibens. The discovery that wild grasses could be turned in to ripple pushed humans fast to plant and breed high yielding barley, wheat, and other grains we know today. This places us at about 9,000 years ago when the transition from wondering nomad to agricultural based farming was established. At an ancient site known as Göbekli Tepe located in southeastern Turkey, T-shape pillars dated to around 11,600 years ago were discovered. This site showed evidence of hunter-gatherers congregating to the location for religious ceremonies and were driven to settle down in order to worship more regularly. Large barrels that could hold 40 gallons of liquid were discovered with trace evidence they were used for fermenting wild grasses. Evidence of oxalate residue, a crusty whitish chemical left behind when water and grain mix, was discovered in the tubs. In addition, one vessel contained the shoulder bone of a wild ass, just the right size and shape for stirring a foaming liquid. Some of the oldest firm evidence of alcohol fermentation took place by 7000 B.C. at a site called Jiahu, China. Evidence found at this sight suggest that a cocktail made out of rice, hawthorn berries, honey, and wild grapes was produced for imbibing. It is the earliest evidence for a beer, wine, and mead concoction all in one. But it turns out that even the nomads of Central Asia made up for their lack of fermented fruits and grains by fermenting horse milk. The result is koumiss, a tangy drink with the alcohol content of a weak beer.

The historical roots for imbibing alcohol remained the same for our more modern ancestors as well. People drank alcohol for the same reasons primates ate fermenting fruit. It was good for them. Yeasts produce ethanol, a chemical used in fighting biological warfare. Ethanol is toxic to other substances like microbes that compete with them for sugar inside the fruit. The antimicrobial effects benefits the drinker. This helps explain why people in antiquity drank alcoholic beverages in mass quantity. It was safer and more beneficial than drinking the water. In addition to these medicinal properties the kinds of beer produced in antiquity were not pasteurized, filtered, or hopped out. This resulted in a drink that was fortified with B vitamins, folic acid, niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin and in the Near East beer was a sort of enriched liquid bread.

The ancient Sumerians over 4,000 years ago had a simple recipe for producing a micro batch of brew that incorporated toasted barley cookies, crushed barley malt, milled emmer, an ancient grain, and three quarts of water. Allowed to “rise” for about 24 hours what you end up with is an ancient Sumerian grain alcohol that was safer to drink than water. It’s provocative to ponder the possibility that ancient language may have developed out of a need to transcribe and preserve this recipe for future generations. Eventually ancient Egyptians progressed away from home brewing towards large scale mass production. These denizens of industry and knowledge maintained industrial scale breweries that were used to supply their slave labor force, which built their monuments, temples, and pyramids with this life sustaining form of liquid bread. Even ancient Babylonian sources from 500 B.C. reflected dozens of types of recorded beers; red beer, pale beer, and dark beer.

Adelheid Otto, an archaeologist from Munich thinks the nutrients that fermenting added to early grain made Mesopotamian civilization viable, providing basic vitamins missing from what was otherwise a depressingly bad diet. “They had bread and barley porridge, plus maybe some meat at feasts.” Other than that nutrition was very bad. But as soon as you have beer, you have everything you need to develop really well. “I’m convinced this is why the first high cultures arose in the Near East,” says Otto.

Homo Imbibens Re-tells An All Too Familiar Faustian Theme And Explains The Roots Of Our Drunken History

Human beings never seem to know when to stop. We always go too far, at least that was Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s prime thesis in his stage play “Faust.” The ancient Romans proved this with their mass over-consumption of wine before battle. This suggests that ancient humans felt is necessary that one must get “properly deluded” before picking up a weapon and charging off to war. At a site called Corent, located in central France, archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of a major Celtic ceremonial center and regional capital dated to the first and second century B.C. At around 140 B.C. Corent inhabitants developed a ferocious taste for expensive Roman wine. From the unearthed remains at this site it has been determined the population at this time in history drank 28,000 bottles of expensive Italian red a year. The cites estimated population, 10,000 people. At this period in time, “…wine was primarily drunk by elites,” says Matthieu Poux, a Franco-Swiss archaeologist. “We have to assume lots more beer and mead was drunk by commoners.” That’s a lot of alcohol!

The spiritual and intellectual connections between humans and alcohol can be re-told by the ancient Greeks. In a symposium fueled by wine it was believed, “The first bowl of wine is for health, the second for pleasure, and the third for sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, the wise guests go home.” The comic poet Eubulus warned people during the fourth century B.C. about the down fall of over consumption. “The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes. The eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture.”

“Millions of years ago, when food was harder to come by, the attraction to ethanol and the brain chemistry that lit up to reward the discovery of fermented fruit may have been a critical survival advantage for our primate ancestors. Today those genetic and neurochemical traits may be at the root of compulsive drinking,” says Robert Dudley.

So what does this have to do with global climate change, the melting of Antarctica, Trump as president, and the deforestation of the rain forest? “Hmmmmmm.” Maybe we’re all just over performers?

To read more about the our historical roots with ethanol check out the February 2017 edition of National Geographic “Saving Our Oceans,” The Birth of Booze, page 30.