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Did a thirst for beer spark civilization?:

Drunkenness, hangovers, and debauchery tend to come to mind when one thinks about alcohol and its effects. But could alcohol also have been a catalyst for human civilization?

According to archaeologist Patrick McGovern this may have been the case when early man decided to start farming. Why humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture could be the result of our ancestors’ simple urge for alcoholic beverages.

“Alcohol provided the initial motivation,” said McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “Then it got going the engine of society.”

As one of the leading experts on the study of ancient alcoholic brews, McGovern has found evidence showing that early man was making the beverage as far back as 9,000 years ago.

His earliest sample, which dates to 7000 BC, includes pottery shards found in a Neolithic village at the Jiahu site in China. By examining the clay shards, McGovern discovered traces of Tartaric acid, a compound found in alcoholic brews.

The makers of this particular ancient beverage would have relied on a more primitive brewing method. Specifically, their teeth and saliva. To allow for fermentation, they would have first chewed on wild rice, turning the starch into malt sugar. This would then be added to a mixture of honey, wild grapes and hawthorn fruit — all ingredients that could be found in their surroundings.

“A main motivation for settling down and domesticating crops was probably to make an alcoholic beverage of some kind,” McGovern concluded. “People wanted to be closer to their plants so this leads to settlement.”

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McGovern’s book on the history of alcoholic beverages is here.

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About Eric Barker