Alcohol isn’t just a mind-altering drink: It has been a prime mover of human culture from the beginning, fueling the development of arts, language, and religion.
“Our ape ancestors started eating fermented fruits on the forest floor, and that made all the difference,” says Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College. “Drinking is such an integral part of our humanity”, adds Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, ”that our species could be called Homo imbibens”. Both of them accompanied by other scientists claim it is this weakness towards spirits that made our forefathers come down from tress and then inspired them to develop art, religion and language.
From our modern point of view, ethanol has one very compelling property: it makes us feel good. Ethanol helps release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain, chemicals that make us happy and less anxious.
To our fruit-eating primate ancestors swinging through the trees, however, the ethanol in rotting fruit would have had three other appealing characteristics. First, it has a strong, distinctive smell that makes the fruit easy to locate. Second, it’s easier to digest, allowing animals to get more of a commodity that was precious back then: calories. Third, its antiseptic qualities repel microbes that might sicken a primate. Millions of years ago one of them developed a taste for fruit that had fallen from the tree and it all started.
“You could say we came out of the trees to get a beer,” says Steven Benner, co-author of the study and a biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida. But the point wasn’t to get drunk. That would come much later, once we figured out how to make the stuff in quantity.
Workers building the great Pyramids at Giza were given beer not to lose spirit, whereas royals were buried with miniature breweries to quench their thirst in the afterlife. In ancient and medieval times warriors drank heavily before battle and went into battle drunk. These days are not different. Worldwide, people age 15 and over average about a drink a day.
Where does booze come from? How has it conquered our hearts and throats? And to what extent has it shaped the story of humankind? You will find the answers to these questions in the text along with instructions on how to re-create beer from a 4,000-year-old Sumerian recipe.