What led early humans to begin cultivating grain some 10,000 years ago?
It was beer — not bread — a growing body of research shows.
Archaeologists have long hinted that Neolithic, or Stone Age, people first began growing and storing grain, like wheat and barley, to turn it into alcohol instead of flour for making bread. The concept was recently revisited by writer Gloria Dawson in the science magazine Nautilus.
A botanist named Jonathan D. Sauer first posed the theory in the early 1950s. Sauer believed early farmers needed more incentive than just food to go through all the effort of planting and harvesting crops “for the pitiful small return of grain.” It was the discovery that “a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage,” he suggested, that “acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread-making.”
Solomon Katz and Mary Voigt from the University of Pennsylvania added to the argument in the 1980s in a publication titled “Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet.” People didn’t just enjoy the “altered state of awareness” that came from drinking beer, they argued, it was also nutritionally superior to every food in their diet other than animal proteins.
According to Dawson, one researcher even claims that beer was “safer to drink than water, because the fermentation process killed pathogenic microorganisms.”
Today, archaeologists continue to probe the role of beer in the domestication of grain. The most recent investigation was carried out by Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
The earliest evidence of beer-making, Hayden has suggested, can be traced back to the Natufian culture, which pre-dates the Neolithic period that is generally associated with the beginning of farming. The Natufian were hunters and gatherers that inhabited an area in the Eastern Mediterranean called the Levant (which now makes up Syria, Jordan, and Israel) perhaps as early as 13,000 years ago. Archaeological remains found in this region, including grindstones and brewing vessels, are tools that could have potentially been used to make beer.
Hayden has pushed the idea that cultural factors, not environmental ones, fostered the domestication of grain. Once people understood the effects of alcohol, it became a central part of feasts and other social gatherings that forged bonds between people and inspired creativity. Political discussions could also take place at these get-togethers, which was important in chiseling power structures.
“Some evidence suggests that these early brews (or wines) were also considered aids in deliberation,” The New York Times explained. “In long ago Germany and Persia, collective decisions of state were made after a few warm ones, then double-checked when sober. Elsewhere, they did it the other way around.”
“It’s not that drinking and brewing by itself helped start cultivation,” Hayden told LiveScience back in 2010, “it’s this context of feasts that links beer and the emergence of complex societies.”
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