Were Humans Built to Drink Alcohol?

The “Indiana Jones of alcohol” on how beer launched modern civilization

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.

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.

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.

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