Humanity’s thirst for getting drunk probably started in the Palaeolithic period and was crucial in developing language, art and religion, according to a new book.
Dr Patrick McGovern, an alcohol archaeologist, suggests humans started agriculture not to make food but to make fermented drinks from the grain so they could get drunk.
By analysing the residues found on fragments of pottery, Dr McGovern has managed to recreate a number of ancient beers and wines that were all but lost to history.
One of the drinks he recreates is named the Midas Touch which was found in Turkish tomb dating back to 700 BC.
In his book ‘Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Recreated’, Dr McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania suggests Paleolithic people – the era that hominids start making tools – may have also been getting tipsy.
He believes the need for grain to make alcohol fuelled human development and domestication.
‘We don’t know for sure and have limited archaeological evidence, but if you had your choice, which would it be?’ said Dr McGovern.
‘Once you have fermented beverages, it causes a change of behaviour, creates a mind-altering experience.
‘I think that could be important in developing language, music, the arts in general and then religion, too’, he said.
Archaeologically, it’s hard to prove as alcohol evaporates leaving nothing for chemical analysis and the oldest container shown to have contained alcohol is from 9,000 years ago, writes Smithsonian Magazine.
Dr McGovern points out that alcohol is central to social interactions around the world – lowering people’s inhibitions and making them feel more spiritual.
His findings back up a 2013 study published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory that suggested increased demands for cereals for beer brewing is what drove human domestication.
All alcoholic drinks are made by yeasts – tiny single-celled life forms that consume sugar and break it down into carbon dioxide and ethanol.
Dr McGovern’s book, which is published by W. W. Norton & Company, recreates some ancient recipes.
Munich’s Oktoberfest beer festival (left) began in 1810 as a wedding celebration for the Bavarian crown price. Today, it’s one of the largest festivals with more than six million visitors per year. Grapes are picked by locals dressed as Roman slaves (right) in the French town of Arles and pressed with a massive oak-tree trunk. The juice is then fermented in open clay jars. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
The first drink that he recreated is named the Midas Touch, and is based on molecular evidence from residues found inside a Turkish tomb, believed to have belonged to King Midas.
One of the recipes re-creates the oldest-known alcohol, which comes from China, as well as a chocolate concoction that comes from Mesoamerica.
The Inca consumed alcohol in the form of chicha – a corn based beer mixed with strawberries – although the Inca often used mind-altering herbs instead of strawberries.
‘Taking all the available evidence we have, we wanted to see if we could recreate the drinks and make something that’s palatable for the modern human,’ McGovern said.
HISTORICAL BREW RECIPES
Somewhere between beer, wine and mead, this drink is based on molecular evidence found in a Turkish tomb believed to have belonged to King Midas, dating back to 700 BC.
It’s a sweet yet dry beer made with honey, barley malt, white muscat grapes and saffron.
This 9,000-year-old Chinese drink is made with hawthorn fruit, Chinese wild grapes, rice and honey. It is the oldest known fermented beverage in history.
Found in Honduras, Theobrama is brewed with artisanal dark chocolate from the ancient cacao area of Soconusco, honey, chilies, corn and annatto or achiote (fragrant and reddish, imitating sacrificial blood).
It dates back 3,400 years, based on chemical analysis of pottery fragments found in Honduras which contained the earliest chocolate beverage from the Americas..
The ingredients of this drink are based on chemical and botanical analyses of Egypt’s oldest known wine (about 3150 BC) and other sites dating back 18,000 years, in addition to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions and artistic depictions of brewing.
It uses an ancient species of wheat (einkorn) for hearth-baked bread, with added chamomile, doum palm fruit and Middle Eastern herbs.
Birra Etrusca Bronze
This 2,800-year-old drink uses two-row malted barley and an heirloom Italian wheat. It heralds from Italy and also contains speciality ingredients such as hazelnuts, pomegranates, Italian chestnut honey and wildflower and clover honeys from Delaware, and myrrh.
The Dogfish version was brewed with bronze (replicating the ancient vessels made of this metal alloy); the Italian versions were brewed in replica Etruscan pottery jars and oak barrels.
Chemical, botanical and pollen evidence are the basis for this ‘Nordic grog,’ which is attested at sites in Sweden and Denmark from the Bronze Age to Roman times.
The contents of a 3,500-year-old Danish drinking vessel exemplifies this drink. The vessel was made of birch bark and found in the tomb of a leather and woollen-clad woman, who was possibly a priestess.
The ingredients are sourced from the far north: red winter wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, bog myrtle (Myrica gale), yarrow, honey, juniper, and birch syrup. Imported wine from southern and central Europe was also added to the bracing northern brew.
To reveal what ingredients were needed, Dr McGovern analysed residues found at various archaeological sites around the world.
He detected traces of various ingredients left by the drinks – including barley, honey, herbs and spices – using a number of methods including liquid chromatography, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.
‘Our ultimate objective is to gather as many well-verified pieces of the puzzle as possible, hypothesize about what ingredients most likely went into the brew and how it was brewed, and then try to replicate it’, he said.
It seems humans might not be the only ones getting tipsy on alcohol as monkeys also consumed alcohol produced from fermented fruits and nectar.
Left: Dr McGovern (pictured left), with Sam Calagione from Dogfish brewery, making an ancient brew. Right: A birch-bark bucket found in Denmark, which archaeobotanical evidence revealed to contain ‘Nordic grog’ dating back up to 1,500 years
The Malaysian tree shrew drinks the equivalent of nine glasses of wine a night and bats also get tipsy through eating fermented fruits.
‘I hope they come away with an appreciation for how fermentation is really an essential part of life on this planet and in human societies. It has had a profound effect on what we are today’, said Dr McGovern.
The alcohol archaeologists believes that our bodies could be made to consume alcohol.
‘We’ve got an enzyme in our saliva that breaks down carbs into sugar, we have alcohol dehydrogenase [enzymes that break down ethanol] in our mouths, all through our gut and down through our liver’, he said.