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Is beer civilizing?

November 18, 2010

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Did beer help fuel the rise of civilization? It’s possible, say’s SFU ethno-archaeologist Brian Hayden, who plans to publish research on the historically blessed beverage’s origins in a major anthropology journal.

“Beer is sacred stuff in most traditional societies,” says Hayden, an expert on prehistoric cultures. He argues that Stone Age farmers began domesticating grains not so much to get fed as to get a buzz, by turning them into beer.

Archaeological evidence suggests people didn’t eat a lot of grains until the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, period because of all of the gathering, winnowing, husking and grinding required to extract something edible from them.

Evidence in Syria indicates prehistoric people travelled as far as 100 km to acquire grains, which Hayden speculates would have been essential for feasts, when guests were offered exotic or expensive-to-prepare foods, including beer.

Feasts are indispensable in traditional societies for creating debts, factions, social bonds, political power and support networks—all essential components of complex societies, he says.

Meat, cereal grains in the form of breads or porridge, and alcohol are the three essential ingredients in almost all traditional feasts worldwide, says Hayden.

And because alcohol requires surplus grain, time and effort, it’s produced almost exclusively for special occasions in traditional societies, to impress guests and alter their attitudes favorably toward their hosts.

Scientists have found evidence of brewing by the Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Mesolithic period in the form of artifacts such as grindstones and brewing vessels and signs of heating needed to prepare mash.

But he adds, “We still don’t have the smoking gun” such as “beer residues in the bottom of stone cups or anything like that.”

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