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.
“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.
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.
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.