An Alcoholic Motivation

January 19th, 2010

We already knew that scientists(geologists especially) had a special fascination with beer. Now, in a new book written by archaeologist Patrick McGovern, the case for beer being a catalyst for civilization’s agricultural past might be stronger than we ever could have imagined.

“Alcohol provided the initial motivation,” said McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “Then it got going the engine of society.”

As one of the leading experts on the study of ancient alcoholic brews, McGovern has found evidence showing that early man was making the beverage as far back as 9,000 years ago.

His earliest sample, which dates to 7000 BC, includes pottery shards found in a Neolithic village at the Jiahu site in China. By examining the clay shards, McGovern discovered traces of Tartaric acid, a compound found in alcoholic brews.

The makers of this particular ancient beverage would have relied on a more primitive brewing method. Specifically, their teeth and saliva. To allow for fermentation, they would have first chewed on wild rice, turning the starch into malt sugar. This would then be added to a mixture of honey, wild grapes and hawthorn fruit — all ingredients that could be found in their surroundings.

Some of you may remember the Dogfish Head creation that utilized saliva as a main part of the fermentation process. This Central and Southern American creation might not be too far off from the brews that McGovern speaks of. However, McGovern goes much further than just talking about beer as a thing to enjoy as a local. No, he says it really was a main reason why people started farming, and continued farming, in the first place.

“A main motivation for settling down and domesticating crops was probably to make an alcoholic beverage of some kind,” McGovern concluded. “People wanted to be closer to their plants so this leads to settlement.”

If this were true, the first farmers would have in fact been real ale brewers. Moreover, alcohol, which is often used to break down barriers between people, would have acted much in the same way it did thousands of years ago.

“Whenever we look at the Neolithic beverages and the domestication of these plants, we find that it was more of an egalitarian effort, with people working together,” McGovern said.

McGovern’s new book, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages, is available for around $20 on Amazon. And who says a little alcohol never led to any grand schemes? Take a look at the middle of the United States! All of that? Because of beer! I think you have some thank you notes to write, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, etc.

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    Matt is a freelance journalist, fiction, and nonfiction writer. He recently graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a degree in English and a subconcentration in creative writing. Matt enjoys watching Arsenal soccer games, Michigan football, and all things beer—especially stouts and anything imperial. He can be reached at

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