How Booze Gave Rise to Civilization

POSTED February 2, 2010
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Somewhere around 10,000 or so years ago something big happened to humanity. We stopped wandering around, pulling berries from shrubs and jumping out of trees onto gazelles to feed ourselves. We settled down. We chose the most desirable plants from our surroundings and cultivated them into crops that could reliably produce sustenance for us. We chose the tastiest, least dangerous animals we could find and taught them to stay in pens until we got around to slaughtering them. This moment in human history (a moment that developed over thousands of years) is called the Neolithic Revolution, and not for nothing.

It’s not difficult to argue that agriculture is the single greatest technological innovation that humans ever adopted. Without the nutrition that it lent us, our numbers wouldn’t have thrived as they have. The carrying capacity for non-intensive agriculture was around 6 billion, which allowed the estimated population of 5 million to explode. With greater numbers comes a greater number of geniuses and innovators born. These people accelerate humanity faster and further. And here we are today. One can also argue, as Dr. Jared Diamond has, that adopting agriculture was the greatest mistake in the history of humanity, as it gave rise to epidemic disease, class disparity, poverty and just about every other social malady around, since without society you can’t have social maladies.

Regardless of where you sit on the fence concerning civilization, there’s one question that’s so far remained unanswered: Exactly why did people begin taming plants into crops? Conventional wisdom would say that people adopted agriculture because it was easier than hunting and gathering. Not so. Studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies show they have exponentially more leisure time than modern humans in civilization. Ask any farmhand how easy his life is while he’s feeding cows at 4:30 on a January morning.

You can see how the door is left widely open enough for a guy like Patrick McGovern to assert his hypothesis. McGovern pioneered the field of biomolecular archaeology, which amounts largely to examining the trace contents of things like ancient pottery shards. From his extensive examinations, McGovern has time and time again turned up evidence of alcoholic beverages. In fact, he’s found traces of fermented alcohol in shards that date back 9,000 years. So McGovern’s posited that humans adopted agriculture not because our early ancestors had some tremendous foreknowledge that it would benefit us and expand us as a species, but because we really, really liked to drink.

Most mind blowing about the McGovern’s hypothesis is where it leads the imagination, back to that moment of initial discovery of fermented alcohol. What fortuitous circumstance gave rise to such a thing? Fire is easy enough; lighting probably ignited some dead wood, much like the finger of God pointing directly downward from the heavens. But alcohol? The sequence of events for a piece of grain or cereal or fruit to become accidentally fermented in nature, for a person to come by and drink that one particular concoction is staggering. What kind of trial and error followed as that one person who was smart enough to realize that this wonderful thing could be replicated somehow?

Back to it. McGovern is aware he hasn’t laid down the law on the Neolithic Revolution. He told The Independent: “I just wanted to put it out there as a worldwide hypothesis. Then over time maybe the different pieces can be put together from across the world.”

It does make sense in its way. Humans already had abundant access to food through hunting and gathering; why would we settle down with agriculture just to produce more food? We did not have easy access to alcohol, however, and a recognition that producing more of a plant that we’d identified as a means to get more alcohol could very well have provided the motivation to cultivate crops.

McGovern’s hypothesis also provides an explanation of how society developed alongside agriculture. Again, conventional wisdom was that the need to tend to food crops drew people close together. Again, why? McGovern’s idea is that alcohol, as a social lubricant, literally provided the familial feelings needed for people to come together on a massive scale. (“It may just be this fermented rice wine talking, but we should totally build the first sedentary society together. We should totally do that, you know?”)

Lastly, the alcohol explanation for the Neolithic Revolution also demonstrates why Prohibition in the United States only lasted 13 years. The logic was there: If alcoholics couldn’t resist alcohol, and the rest of us who aren’t alcoholics could, then as a society we should give up alcohol for the benefit of the alcoholics. If alcohol gave birth to society, though, then society could never fully turn its back on its mother.

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