Beer and the rise of human civilization

I appreciate all the recent comments from readers who stand against even the moderate consumption of alcohol. But as I’ve said many times before, moderate drinking confers many health benefits. It’s a scientific fact. And I base my writings for the Daily Dispatch on science. Not some variety of moralism.

We don’t agree on exactly how alcohol benefits health, I’ll admit.

It may be that drinking alcohol reduces stress. And stress is the real modern-day killer. Or perhaps it works by providing healthy doses of antioxidants. It’s probably more complicated than that. And a combination of many different things. In fact, the truth may lie in some other factor we have yet to discover.

In the Daily Dispatch, I have mainly focused on the personal health benefits of moderate drinking.

But alcohol consumption also has social benefits.

The founding fathers accomplished as much of the real work for the American Revolution in taverns as they did in state halls. In fact, much of the brainstorming for the Declaration of Independence occurred in a tavern in Philadelphia. You can still go visit this tavern. That is, if you are willing to pay the ridiculous local taxes levied on anyone who sets foot in our nation’s first capital city.

Of course, the U.S. government set aside the founding fathers’ example in the 1920s with Prohibition. And we all know how well that worked out.

Anthropologists are now uncovering an even bigger benefit to moderate consumption. They say drinking moderately helped humans create modern civilizations.

You won’t find results like this published in medical literature. But health is much more complex than what modern medicine currently allows as relevant. And human beings are more than just machines, as I said last week.

Human beings are social animals. And social organization is the basis of human civilization. In fact, many anthropologists now believe human social organization kept our delicate species alive at the dawn of time.

This social organization protected our young and the entire group. It also assigned a place in the social order. It ensured that everyone did his or her assigned chores. It also discouraged offenses. And it removed offenders from the social order. This provided security and ensured our survival as a species.

But what caused early human civilization to grow and change?

This basic social structure did very little to encourage artistic expression, creativity, exploration, or experimentation. In fact, if anything, it discouraged this behavior. But these loftier pursuits were essential–and still are–for the prosperity and advancement of human civilization.

So anthropologists began asking these questions…

Did something help loosen the rigid and uncreative social codes? What helped us break away from the “norm” once in a while? What helped us occasionally let loose, without having to tear down the entire age-old social structure on which human survival has been based from the beginning?

A group of anthropologists believes that alcohol helped encourage that change.

In ancient times, foragers ran across naturally fermented fruit or grain from time to time. Fruits and grains–when left to ripen–become colonized by yeast. And the yeast converts the natural sugars into alcohol. The foragers sampled this fermented fruit and grain. And enjoyed the experience.

Humans started to grow grain about 10,000 years ago. This required people to settle down in one place to plant and harvest it. It also often required irrigation. This led to the development of towns and cities. Early civilizations used cultivated grains to make bread–the “staff of life”–and provide calories to growing populations.

But in the 1950s, anthropologists began to find evidence that humans grew grains to ferment them and make beers. Even before they grew them to make bread.

If man did not live by bread alone…was it really beer?

Many anthropologists believe so.

A more recent study continues this line of investigation. Published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, the study concluded that at the dawn of human history, “brewing of beer was an important aspect of feasting and society” in the Eastern Mediterranean “cradle of civilization.”

Archaeologists also concluded that corn found in the New World was much better suited for brewing beers than for making bread. It took many generations before farmers converted this corn into the useful and nutritious food of maize. Which they then used to make corn flour.

Anthropologists also argue that early human civilizations needed beer so “they could all get along.” They used these early brews to quell angst, overcome shyness, and speak their minds. They become more expansive, collaborative, and creative. Plus, alcohol gets into every cell in the body. Metabolically, it is a very natural biochemical–in moderation.

More evidence indicates that leaders of early states used these brews to aid in deliberations. In ancient Persia and Germany, decisions of state were made after a few brews. And then checked when sober. Elsewhere, it was done the other way around.

This tradition continues with the expensive and lavish “State dinners” we always hear about in Washington, D.C. Maybe with the new government cuts, they could skip the tuxedo rentals and head straight to the local tavern?

Brews with higher alcoholic concentrations date back probably only about 2,000 years. Before that, it may have been difficult to drink enough to do serious harm.

In today’s world, however, you can find liquors that are 75 to 95 percent alcohol. Plus, young people commonly add energy drinks to liquor, compounding the problem. Excessive consumption is a problem in today’s world.

In addition, we have prescription drugs in our “brave new world.” There is a pill for every reality of human existence. And some worry that even moderate alcohol consumption puts us on a “slippery slope” to alcohol abuse. Others know that some slippery slopes provide ideal locations for planting vineyards.

Ben Franklin once said, “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” You can find such aphorisms in Franklin’s popular handbook of home remedies, “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”

In French, poor Richard was translated as “Bonhomme Richard.” That name translates back to English more like the “jolly, good fellow” of old England. Now we know what helped make Richard jolly… and perhaps helped to make him good.

Where is Ben Franklin now when we need him?


1. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory March 2013, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 102-150.