A shorter version of this story appears in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
As a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Patrick McGovern, 71, is a modern brewmaster of the ancient empires. By extracting organic material left at archaeological sites, he and Dogfish Head Brewery re-create humankind’s first alcoholic beverages. So far, these include a beer likely served at King Midas’s funerary feast, and a 9,000-year-old fermented rice and honey drink from Neolithic China—which, McGovern says, still “goes very well with Chinese food.” We asked the “Indiana Jones of alcohol” to dig into mankind’s relationship with libations.
Why did humans start drinking?
We were born to drink—first milk, then fermented beverages. Our sensory organs attract us to them. As humans came out of Africa, they developed these from what they grew. In the Middle East, it was barley and wheat. In China, rice and sorghum. Alcohol is central to human culture and biology because we were probably drinking fermented beverages from the beginning. We’re set up to drink them.
How did alcohol shape civilization?
Anthropologists debate which came first, bread or beer. I think it was beer: It’s easier to make, more nutritious, and has a mind-altering effect. These were incentives for hunter-gatherers to settle down and domesticate grain. In the process they set up the first permanent villages and broke down social boundaries between groups. Most of the world’s religions use alcohol, and the earliest medicines involve wine. The beginnings of civilization were spurred on by fermented beverages.
In what way?
Alcohol is very important as a social lubricant. If you were an early hunter-gatherer society it helps to have a group working together. After hunting you’d come back and a fermented beverage would bring people together. In Western culture today we tend to think of alcoholic beverages as a recreational activity, but it has probably always been partly that way because they break down boundaries between people—if you don’t drink inordinate amounts.
How did alcohol affect religion?
The process of fermentation itself is very mysterious: It’s bubbling away as carbon dioxide comes off. You see this and think, There’s got to be something special at work. When you take a drink of it and get a mind-altering effect, that’s associated with an outside force communicating via this beverage. So if we look at most of the religions around the world they have a fermented beverage central to them.
But is it healthy?
Alcohol is good for you. We’re biologically adapted to moderate drinking: It kills harmful bacteria. If you were in a situation two million years ago where your life expectancy may only be 20 years, you’d look for anything that may extend it or keep disease to a minimum. What choice did you have? If you just drink raw water you run a very high risk of getting disease, and people would have empirically realized that. They see that a guy drinking out of the stream died, but the guy drinking alcohol lived to be 30.
Why aren't the medicinal benefits more widely known?
The earliest medicines from the Romans and Greeks involve a lot of wine. Every kind of wine has a special medicinal effect. Up until a hundred years ago alcoholic beverages were the prime medicine. That may explain why a lot of doctors want to find out about my research—they don’t know how pervasive these beverages were and how far back they go. That’s a carryover of prohibition: Doctors stress the negative side even though they enjoy fermented beverages. For a long time the medical community just said it was detrimental. Then they found out a glass or two of wine a day is better than not having any.
How can we drink like our ancestors?
When analyzing something, I work from a minuscule amount of chemical, botanical, and archaeological data. I look for principal ingredients: Does it have a grain? A fruit? An herb? Then I take bits of information from texts or frescoes and re-create the process, replicating pottery or collecting local yeast. Some methods carry on for thousands of years. In Burkina Faso they still mash carbs into sugar exactly how the ancient Egyptians did in 3500 B.C.
When did you first discover a passion for alcohol?
I traveled to Germany when I was 16 years old and had my first beer. The reason was because it cost less than the Coca-Cola. Then I discovered it also made you feel very good. As I got more involved in the research and had opportunities to do tastings I'd try to see the different nuances of flavor. You can’t understand the ancient beverages unless you taste the modern ones.