Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Beer Built Civilization

A couple months ago, I commented on an article in Biblical Archaeology Review about beer in the Bible. Now, along comes this article.

"Beer Lubricated the Rise of Civilization, Study Suggests"

While there are some aspects to this article that are sensationalistic, the core idea here is probably valid. Something happened about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago where humans in eastern Europe and the middle east went from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to being farmers and living in towns. At this point, no one knows for certain why this happened, but scientists have observed a cluster of events that happened around this time, specifically related to the rise of farming and the domestication of animals, that indicate this change. We call this the Neolithic era or "new stone age."
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.
The bottom line here is this, humans changed their diet. They also apparently changed what they drank. It's long been known that beer played a major role in the ancient world. (It's even been suggested that children probably drank beer. The formula for ancient beer is quite different than modern beer. I've heard that it doesn't taste very good to modern sensibilities. Here is one guy's attempt replicate ancient beer.) What this study suggests is that the making and drinking of beer may have been another critical component to the rise of neolithic culture.
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...

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.
From a biblical perspective, what's interesting here is that these the events of the neolithic era paint a picture of (I believe) the world that Noah lived in, possibly going back to Genesis 5. Sometimes we have a tendency to not put stories in the Bible (especially Noah) in their real-world context. Discoveries like this help to reveal a more complete understanding of the world as Noah and others in the early chapters of Genesis may have known it. Cheers!

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