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Beer - The Reason Neolithic Man Developed Agriculture

Updated on January 26, 2010

Beer or Bread?

It has long been assumed that the reason early civilisations first grew crops was due to their discover of bread. This has now been brought into question by US Archaeologist Patrick McGovern.

He theorizes that early man discovered alcohol by accident, ingesting fermented fruit and quickly becoming attracted to the intoxication that resulted. He suggests that they quickly developed a desire for a regular supply of alcoholic beverages and this may have led to technological developments

The Evidence

 Analyzing clay fragments in China's Yellow River Valley, McGovern found that the village of Jiahu was brewing a type of mead with an alcohol content around 10% as much as 9,000 years ago. His theory is based on traces of beeswax and tartaric acid - a primary acid present in wine - found within the pores of the pottery shards.

This is an amazing discovery as it predates the invention of the wheel - believed to be between 5,500 and 8,000 years old depending on sources.

Intentional fermentation in this historic period is a significant claim but McGovern goes further with his claims.

The Call of the Beer

 McGovern has looked at the evidence and proposed an alternate theory to that currently accepted. He suggests that maybe it was beer and not bread that led early civilization to grow organized crops to ensure supply.

He argues that a rudimentary form of beer is easier to make than bread. To make bread, the grain has to be separated from the chaff - a difficult and labour intensive practice not worth the effort on the required scale. A simple alcoholic mix of fruit wine and basic mead requires little skill and McGovern thinks is a more likely scenario.

In essence, he proposes that the desire for drink is a more probable catalyst for the development of agriculture than a regular meal.

More Alcoholic Evidence

The theory is backed up by findings in the middle east. In modern day Iran, bulbous vessels were found in the prehistoric settlement of Godin Tepe. They had much larger openings than previously described wine containers.

Analysis in the laboratory revealed the presence of Calcium Oxalate. This is an unwanted by-product of brewing that is easily filtered out with current methods. It appears that both the Persians and nearby Sumerians practiced this form of brewing around 3,500 years ago.

It remains to be seen if more evidence will support McGovern's theory but if nothing else, he has stirred interest in the origins of agriculture and our interpretation of the evidence to date.


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