Brewing As A Far Earlier Step Than Community

In the past I have noted how it is pretty silly to suggest brewing was the cause of middle eastern communities to come together to form civilization given what might have been formed could well have been a very nasty enslavement of otherwise happy hunter gatherers.  But the link is AWOL. Still, an interesting narrative has come out related to the Gobekli Tepe site in southeastern Turkey that is interesting and perhaps turns our assumptions about the origins of brewing on their head.

Gobekli Tepe is in the news at the moment because a carving there has been determined to be recording the flood narrative. The story of beer, however, may also be set out in the site’s archaeological record. Consider this:

Recently, further chemical analyses were conducted by M. Zarnkow (Technical University of Munich, Weihenstephan) on six large limestone vessels from Göbekli Tepe. These (barrel/trough-shaped) vessels, with capacities of up to 160 litres, were found in-situ in PPNB contexts at the site. Already during excavations it was noted that some vessels carried grey-black adhesions. A first set of analyses made on these substances returned partly positive for calcium oxalate, which develops in the course of the soaking, mashing and fermenting of grain. Although these intriguing results are only preliminary, they provide initial indications for the brewing of beer at Göbekli Tepe, thus provoking renewed discussions relating to the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages at this early time. 

And this:

“The first year, we went through 15,000 pieces of animal bone, all of them wild. It was pretty clear we were dealing with a hunter-gatherer site,” Peters says. “It’s been the same every year since.” The abundant remnants of wild game indicate that the people who lived here had not yet domesticated animals or farmed.

And this:

Since neither domesticated plants nor animals are known from the site, it is clear that the people who erected this monumental sanctuary were still hunter-gatherers, but far more organised than researchers dared to think 20 years ago. 

And this:

Seen from the point of view of nutritional science, there are some advantages in favour of beer. Its lack of oxygen and its low pH value make it less perishable than other cereal products (Back 1994: 16). There is an ongoing discussion about the question of whether most cereals would have been toxic before mankind adapted to them, adverse reactions to gluten proteins (coeliac disease) being the result of a missing evolutionary adaption (Greco 1997). Malting and fermentation could have been a method to weaken these toxic effects as gluten is debranched, agglomerated and filtered to a high extent through malting and brewing. Interestingly, there seems to be a natural lack of toxicity in einkorn (Pizzuti et al. 2006). Whether one of these aspects was known to PPN people remains unknown, but prolonged observations could have led to that knowledge.

If I have it correctly, this means beer existed well before agriculture. Wild grain made a tummy ache. Someone figures out malting makes less of a tummy ache. Malting become centralized over 10,000 years ago – and maybe ceremonialized in whole or in part – but people are still roaming, hunting and gathering happily. For maybe a thousand years or more.

I love it.

5 thoughts on “Brewing As A Far Earlier Step Than Community”

  1. All the beer stuff with Gobekli Tepe is still speculative. Even after almost 4 years there is still no “definitive” proof of a grain-based alcohol drink in those troughs – just the analysis that were “partly positive” for calcium oxalate. Personally, I like to think that they were brewing, but that’s still uncertain. The interesting thing in that vein is that Gobekli Tepe does overlook the plains where barley was first domesticated and lies in the region occupied by the Hittites who were noted brewers in the ancient world. Qode, (or Kedi) a site known for its great beer (exported to Egypt and other places) was also relatively close by.

    The arguments against beer as a driver of civilzation in the Braidwood Symposium always seemed off to me. Not that I think civilization started because of beer, but I do think it was in the mix.

  2. Well, you could argue that civilization in terms of organized agriculture at the social level was driven by the need to benefit from aggregation of the functions like this to scale up.

    But the argument for pre-civilization’s access to ale is the self-evident and independent nature of alcohol’s production. I once watched for a day as starlings fed off our Rowen berry tree when I was in high school and then staggered about as the berries clearly were working, the juice fermenting.

    Same with grain. Leave barley in a bowl with the right conditions of rain-dry-rain and it will sprout, dry and then ferment in a pool of rain water. Early humans would know that the resulting grain water created an stimulating effect.

    1. Clearly our early ancestors looked for mind-altering stimulants, whether from mushrooms or fermented drink. Animals actually use the developing alcohol in developing fruit to find the ripe stuff, so there’s no reason to expect our ancient forebears to be any different.

      The interesting thing about the benefits of organized agriculture is that most people who study it actually see the caloric benefits of agriculture as being less than that of hunting and gathering, so that aggregate benefit would take some time to realize. That’s part of the argument of folks in the Braidwood symposium (and later responses to it). The fact that they had big fields of wild grains to start with probably helped, but there must have been some other benefit that agriculture gave that might not be realized by sticking with wild antelope and goat.

      1. I know. It is hard to get my head around the pre-agricultural landscape. I recall seeing a show about early Britain and they found masses of hazelnut shells throughout the landscape as the community used it as a main food source. Like the Iroquois pre-contact and their deer ranges, large orchards had been cultured in the forest – short of farming but not just picking what nature happened to provide either. With a low population and the bounty around them, the leisure time for easily made alcohols and other stimulants could have been generous. I wonder if there is any decent tracking of whether the formation of agriculture depended on slavery.

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