Beer of Eternity. Dark Beer. Friend’s Beer. Sweet Beer. Beer of the Protector. Although these might sound like what you see on the menu of a local craft brewery, they are actually names the Ancient Egyptians gave to their beloved beers thousands of years ago. In honor of Beer Lover’s Day, Sept. 7, let’s explore the scientific research that indicates fascinating links between not just beer and civilization, but between fermentation and human evolution itself!
The traditional story of early human history (in a nutshell): about 5 million years ago, early human ancestors came down from the trees to hunt and gather new sources of food. Then, about 5,000 years ago Hunting and Gathering humans needed more food. Hunting and Gathering Humans domesticated grain and invented agriculture. Humans settled down to farm and BOOM! Civilization! Then came Beer.
The beverage was likely discovered when someone tried to cook sprouting grain, not knowing it contained enzymes that liquify the starches in grain into sugars. Add a little yeast from the air into the concoction, and yeast began to do what it does best: consume sugar and release ethanol alcohol as a byproduct. No matter how it was discovered, beer was – and remains – a huge hit. The oldest written recipe on earth is a Sumerian clay tablet praising the Goddess of Beer, Ninkasi, and describing how to make beer.
However, between the fields of Archaeology, Anthropology, Chemistry, Genetics, and Brewing Science, there is mounting evidence that indicates the human fixation on fermentation predates settled agricultural civilization by thousands, maybe even MILLIONS of years. The chemical reaction by which yeast creates alcohol from sugar happens naturally in overripe fruit that falls from trees to the forest floor. Steven Benner, a biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida, helped discover a genetic mutation that occurred about 10 million years ago in the last shared ancestor between humans and apes. This mutation produced an enzyme that allowed our distant forbears to digest alcohol 40 times faster than any other animal. It is the reason that only humans and great apes experience such a multitude of pleasant psychoactive effects from alcohol.
Benner and his team elucidated “The Drunken Monkey Hypothesis,” proposing that what actually nudged our ancient ancestors out of the trees and onto the forest floor was the search for delicious, nutrient rich, and pleasingly fermented fruit! In Benner’s words, “You could say we came out of the trees to get a beer.”
Another challenge to traditional notions of early human history is the fact that archaeological and chemical evidence indicates humans may have been brewing up the good stuff long before Urban Civilization as we know it was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. An 11,000 year old site in Turkey called Gobekli Tepe is right in the area in which the first urban civilizations emerged thousands of years later. The site is marked by several spectacular 16-ton pillars of mysterious origin, but it also contains many huge vats that contain a residue of calcium oxalate, which is released when beer is made. Near the vats is also a hilltop covered with the bones of prime cuts of gazelle meat. It’s unknown how the Hunting and Gathering people of the time were able to shape and lift the pillars, but German Archaeological Institute researcher Jens Notroff thinks the secret to gathering so many people for one muscular purpose was the beer. “If you need someone to help you move, you buy them pizza and a couple of beers.”
Bringing people together for beer and barbeque was – and remains – a huge hit. Although it’s still not conclusive, evidence is gathering that it was beer, not bread that inspired our ancient ancestors to domesticate grains. Harvesting wild plants simply couldn’t provide enough grain. So our ancestors planted wild grains and over time bred them into higher yielding barley and wheat. This may explain why the earliest known domesticated grain, called einkorn, comes from a site only a few dozen miles from Gobekli Tepe. Although the theory is not conclusively proven, there is a strong argument that humans did not settle down in large urban communities to farm for food. They settled down to farm grain for BEER!
The Oxford Companion to Beer: Definition of The History of Beer: https://beerandbrewing.com/dictionary/UqfrcsPoAI/
An Anthropologist Ponders the Question of the Origins of Civilization while Brewing an Ancient Sumerian Recipe: https://www.morebeer.com/articles/Brewing_Ancient_Beer
The Drunken Monkey Hypothesis and Gobekli Tepe (Paywall): https://archive.nationalgeographic.com/national-geographic/2017-feb/flipbook/30/