A 1953 colloquium pondered the question "Did Man Once Live By Beer Alone?"

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/09/26/a-1953-colloquium-pondered-the.html


"Did these Neolithic farmers forego the extraordinary food values of the cereals in favor of alcohol, for which they had no physiological need?”

Speaking as a homebrewer, I can tell you right now that I most certainly need alcohol.


So much this :exclamation:


Isn’t it also the case that most folks here were basically pissed til Europe discovered coffee? I’ve no idea if this is actually history (paging @Mindysan33 !), but I like to think it is. Feels truthy, y’know?


Somewhere along the way I got the impression that the persistent popularity of beer arose simply because beer was less likely than the local drinking water to be awash in particularly toxic microorganisms. But that is not my field of study.

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Well, people drank beer because it was safer than water (which when it came from a river or creek used for many other things, could be subject to contaminants that would make people sick), so there is that…

I’ve heard this theory before, and I kind of like it. From what I remember (like with cheese) it was likely an accident with some wild grain, and then it began to be used as a mind altering substance for religious ceremonies and the like. And then began experiments with domestication. Like much else, since all this happened prior to written history, we have very little to go on with regards to their motivations or with even the basic timeline of events.

As for the argument in the article about how bread must have come first, since you’d need nutrition to build early civilizations… hunter-gatherers did fine for a very long time without bread. It seems likely to me that they could easily have done both settling down to farm AND hunting-gathering at the same time.

Agreed, and I know that’s the reasoning well into the early modern/modern era… It’s harder to establish motivation for people this far back, of course.


Just an interesting observation. The general path for breaking down alcohol in the human body goes like this: alcohol -> acetlyaldehyde -> acetic acid -> carbon dioxide + water.

It appears the enzymes required for the acetylaldehyde -> acetic acid are not evenly distributed between all human populations. They are also somewhat unique to humans – I do not believe (and I am not a biologist, just a level 12 homebrew nerd) any other mammal has these enzymes either. These enzymes are only good for processing alcohol.

Consider what kind of selective pressures were applied such that humans evolved the ability in the first place, and that some humans kept them.

Were the foundations of humanity laid by people in a perpetual state of intoxication? Yes. Yes they were.


It doesn’t necessarily have to be on purpose. Beer drinkers could simply get sick and die less often and have natural selection take its course. Same with wine. Water is treacherous, especially when boiling is very labor intensive endeavor (collecting wood, making the fire, having a suitable vessel, etc…).

That rebuttal argument doesn’t seem very strong to me. Beer is absolutely loaded with carbs. The nutrient profile is not awesome, but our point of reference is modern “clean” beer. Beers made from hardy grains may taste relatively terrible but have a superior nutrient profile. Plus it gets supplemented with the rest of the hunter-gatherer diet. Nuts, fruits, meat sometimes, they wouldn’t be living on beer alone but the agriculture may be mostly devoted to beer production. At least until people figure out other things to do with those tough grains.


I think the most important thing to remember regarding European history during the middle ages until roughly the mid-1800s (and possibly later) is that everyone was at least lightly drunk all the time.

(I say this in jest, but given the water situation, it is not as far from the truth as one would think. Small Beer and tea were things, but there was a LOT of beer and grog and other things drunk as it prevented disease.)


Didn’t say it was.

Agreed and the consensus they reached was that the goal was a gruel which could both be eaten and fermented. [ETA] We are again constrained by what we can actually know for certain about their motivations or even the timeline of events here, too. The speculation if certainly fun, though.



I have it on good authority that kids in france are drunk right now…


The first time I heard this theory, it wasn’t that people lived on beer. It was that they were hunter gatherers that discovered wet grains had a nice kick to them and they started staying longer in some locations rather than haul around wet mash while it fermented. This eventually led to permanent settlement, but didn’t necessary end the importance of hunter/gatherer for food.

The same article also gave an ancient beer recipe (Summerian or something). Wheat flour, malted barley, salt, and yeast. Make a crude bread, bake, then crumble and bake again. This could be stored then later used to make beer. I read this as I was eating GrapeNuts. Take a look at the label and see if you come to the same conclusion I did.


Yeah, and quite possibly less alcohol.

When I visited few years ago Kronborg castle in Denmark, I was told that everybody living and working in the castle had the right to few litres of beer per day, and the children had half ration. I don’t remember exactly the amount, but I remember it was a lot,even more than what usually one drinks of water in a day.
The explanation that the guide gave was that that beer was quite much lighter than today, it also contained some calories (of course most people did a lot of manual labour) and water was generally less safe to drink.


I don’t know about beer, but there was a recent study (I probably read it here?) that said wine in Europe has changed very little down the centuries (genetically, for example, some grapes have shown very little variation over the centuries):

I wonder about beer, too? As others note, beer was lighter in nature in the past.


It’s not like there’d be any record history of that, except maybe drunken scribbling on beer mats.

I’d always imagined that hunter-gatherers would cycle around a few locations following the seasons, so would likely be in a few places for a while, sequentially.


Well, I’m no expert at either bread or beer making (hit or miss on the former and while I have the gear for the latter, I’ve never actually made beer [the shame! the shame!]) and my anthropological reading is my roomie’s text books in college along with Jared Diamond’s books. Oh and also watching the Primitive Technology channel (not the proliferation of weird asian tropical construction projects, the original aussie silent guy). But it seems to me that way back when once you got the hang of fire and what follows from that, the constant pressure to keep moving to follow game and seasonal foraging cycles was greatly reduced. You figured out mud could make a cup, a bowl, a cooking pot if placed in a big fire. You could store water, cook small animals or foodstuffs where heating unlocks their nutritional potential. Grains in particular that weren’t on the menu raw could be quite toothsome when boiled in water for a long time. Then that stuff could ferment, that fermentation could also be used to make batches of less wet grains into a rude sort of bread. Refine a few thousand years and boom civilization.

A friend and I were talking about the SpaceX rocket landings and such and at one point after Elon flung his sportscar out to the asteroid belt he quipped: “Not bad for a bunch of fucking monkeys with explosives.” Apes. But I’m not the primate to judge. Ask again in a thousand years.

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The grapes are the same, but what about the yeast? Were the older strains maybe less efficient at converting sugars into alcohols before poisoning themselves?

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I don’t know. They only tested the ancient grapes, as far as I can see from the article.