Consciousness Blog 30 November 2013

Some recent reports of archaeological discoveries have focused on evidences of alcohol consumption between 5,000 and 2,000 BC. What is remarkable about these reports is that they appear to suggest a date for the origin of purposeful brewing of fermented drinks less than 10,000 years ago, and possibly associate it with the development of organized farming.

In northern Israel, archaeologists excavating a Canaanite palace dating from about 2,000 BC have found a large wine cellar containing 40 enormous pottery wine jars which held stocks of red and white wines made to a consistent recipe. The researchers believe that the wine might have tasted somewhat similar to modern-day resinated Greek wine, although with many other additives. While this discovery is far from being the the oldest evidence of wine-drinking (remains of wine dating back to c 4,000 BC have been found in Egyptian and Cyprus tombs, wine remains found at an Iranian site were dated to 5,400 BC, and both rice wine and beer traces have been identified in pottery artefacts dating from 7,000 BC in China) it is remarkable for the fact that there must have been a winery operating on a near-industrial scale and using ingredients from brought in from distant Mediterranean regions, presumably traded. Researcher Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa said: "If you take retsina and you pour a bit of cough syrup inside, I guess you get something quite similar." While contemporary written texts describe herbal wines, this wine cellar is providing the first tangible evidence of the wine itself.

Meanwhile, excavations in a Spanish cave at Begues, Barcelona, carried out by archaeologists from the University of Barcelona, containing human remains dated to about 4,500 BC, have unearthed burial goods including a shard of a cup like container in which oxalate and barley-corn phytoliths were identified, tell-tale traces of beer. This is said to be the earliest scientific evidence of fermented beer ever found in Europe.

Although it is tempting to imagine that organized farming is a necessary precursor of the large-scale production of alcoholic drinks, that is unprovable. A hunter-gatherer society could easily collect quantities of suitable fruits and ferment their juice. What is true, however, is that all the discoveries of the remains of alcoholic drinks (always via traces left in pottery vessels) have been made through excavation of sites in areas where farming was well established.

Negative evidence of a kind is provided by excavations at the prehistoric bog site of Dabki 9 on the Polish Baltic coast near Koszali, carried out by a German-Polish team of archaeologists from regional universities. They have identified the presence of domesticated cattle and pigs between 5,100 and 3,600 BC, although not the breeding of them; and there was no evidence of crop-growing. The way of life of these communities remained primarily hunting and gathering; farming did not appear in that region until later. The settlements did however trade extensively with farming communities on the Hungarian plain, which at that time are thought to have been spreading northwards. Both cultures made ceramic objects, but so far wine or beer traces have not been reported. The researchers believe that the inhabitants of Dabki probably offered the farmers antler products, furs, and objects made of bone and amber; did the farmers offer barley in return, and if they did, why is it that we don't find traces of beer in drinking vessels?

It is well established that written language evolved in association with trade carried out by fixed settlements (and inevitably associated with large-scale organized farming). The earliest traces of this development are from the Middle East: clay tokens were used in Mesopotamia perhaps as early as 8,500 BC to represent numbers, and by 6,500 BC or so start to carry representations of traded goods. These are thought to be associated with the emergence of symbolic language; but artefacts from that period do not carry pictures of wine jars or beer mugs! Given the prominent role that alcohol plays in modern-day socializing, it is interesting to speculate on the means employed to lubricate social gatherings in 8,000 BC, and the role that alcohol, once consistently produced and consumed, may have played in the elaboration of human societal forms in succeeding millennia.

Read more in Chapter Six of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Evolution of Social Consciousness in Animals.


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