The theory that it was beer that caused early man to make the transition from hunter/gatherers to farmers instead of bread, thus starting civilization itself, has been gathering steam since it was first proposed by anthropologists in the 1950s. The latest support comes from archaeologist Brian Hayden at Simon Fraser University in Canada, who will be submitting his recent research to the journal Current Archeology. His theories suggest that it wasn’t just the beer that was important, but its use in rituals like feasts that help bring people together.
From the article in Live Science:
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.
The Neolithic peoples living in the large area of Southwest Asia called the Levant developed from the Natufian culture, pioneers in the use of wild cereals, which would evolve into true farming and more settled behavior. The most obvious explanation for such cultivation is that it was done in order to eat.
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 told LiveScience he has 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 labor 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.
Feasts would have been more than simple get-togethers — such ceremonies have held vital social significance for millennia, from the Last Supper to the first Thanksgiving.
“Feasts are essential in traditional societies for creating debts, for creating factions, for creating bonds between people, for creating political power, for creating support networks, and all of this is essential for developing more complex kinds of societies,” Hayden explained. “Feasts are reciprocal — if I invite you to my feast, you have the obligation to invite me to yours. If I give you something like a pig or a pot of beer, you’re obligated to do the same for me or even more.”
“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 favorably toward hosts.”
Food and beer together at the heart of the birth of civilization. Now that’s pairing idea I can get behind.