alcohol and archaeology

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"The Beer Archaeologist" (Smithsonian) discusses Patrick McGovern, an academic visitor to Delaware's Dogfish Head brewpub:

"Dr. Pat," as he's known at Dogfish Head, is the world's foremost expert on ancient fermented beverages, and he cracks long-forgotten recipes with chemistry, scouring ancient kegs and bottles for residue samples to scrutinize in the lab. He has identified the world's oldest known barley beer (from Iran's Zagros Mountains, dating to 3400 B.C.), the oldest grape wine (also from the Zagros, circa 5400 B.C.) and the earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China's Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago.

Widely published in academic journals and books, McGovern's research has shed light on agriculture, medicine and trade routes during the pre-biblical era.

Scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania's Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health, McGovern comments:

"I don't know if fermented beverages explain everything, but they help explain a lot about how cultures have developed," he says. "You could say that kind of single-mindedness can lead you to over-interpret, but it also helps you make sense of a universal phenomenon."

McGovern, the piece continues, "believes that booze helped make us human:"

In what might be called the "beer before bread" hypothesis, the desire for drink may have prompted the domestication of key crops, which led to permanent human settlements. Scientists, for instance, have measured atomic variations within the skeletal remains of New World humans; the technique, known as isotope analysis, allows researchers to determine the diets of the long-deceased. When early Americans first tamed maize around 6000 B.C., they were probably drinking the corn in the form of wine rather than eating it, analysis has shown.

Maybe even more important than their impact on early agriculture and settlement patterns, though, is how prehistoric potions "opened our minds to other possibilities" and helped foster new symbolic ways of thinking that helped make humankind unique, McGovern says. "Fermented beverages are at the center of religions all around the world. [Alcohol] makes us who we are in a lot of ways." He contends that the altered state of mind that comes with intoxication could have helped fuel cave drawings, shamanistic medicine, dance rituals and other advancements.

It's an interesting thesis--certainly worth discussing over a pint.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on June 24, 2011 6:13 PM.

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