These days I’ve been experimenting with baking bread using various sourdough cultures. Furthermore, my interest in wine has certainly deepened over the last few years. You could say that I’ve become a big fan of fermentation, and I think sometimes about its importance in human life. My hat is off to whatever curious humans first discovered the process and decided to put it to good use.
Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist who studies human exploration of fermented beverages, believes that it might have been the desire for reliable access to alcohol, not food, that spurred the farming revolution that swept Neolithic culture, largely banishing hunter-gatherer ways from many parts of the world. You can think of this revolution in terms of its benefits: farming allowed for settled and growing populations that fostered the sharing of ideas and nurtured technological and cultural innovations. Alternatively, you can focus on the disease, limited diet, and economic inequities that eventually emerged in farming populations (some scholars go so far as to suggest that agriculture was a bad idea). Either way, it was one of the most significant transitions humans have undergone. Was it really spurred by beer?
McGovern has recently written a book, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages, that describes the role of fermentation in human history. This article from Spiegel Online and this one from The Independent describe some of his research, which involves chemical analyses of clay pots and other vessels that reveal traces of their former contents. So far, the earliest evidence he’s been able to find for human alcohol production goes back about 9,000 years—long enough for a quite respectable history of beer and wine, certainly, but not quite enough to say anything definitive about the role of alcohol in the Neolithic Revolution. He does argue that beer probably came before bread because the discovery of fermentation apparently predated the domestication of grains to the point where they would make a decent loaf. In time, perhaps we will learn things about the development of bread and wine that will clarify their respective places in the story of humankind. Meanwhile, McGovern’s book sounds like a fascinating read. Cheers!
P.S. I just remembered a New Yorker article from last year about beer. Luckily it’s available online; toward the bottom, there’s a section about a contemporary brewer who works with McGovern to recreate ancient beers.