We Owe Civilization as We Know It to Beer

by Lucas Witherspoon

At some point, most of us have partaken in the frothy bit of delectation known as beer. Beer is not only the oldest fermented beverage in the world, but remains the most popular, and the third-most popular drink overall, behind only water and tea. Given its prevalence, the history of beer is usually disregarded in lieu of getting hammered, but beer is much more than just the frat bro drink of choice. In fact, we owe civilization as we know it to beer.

The notion sounds pretty ridiculous, but anthropologists now believe that beer is essentially for much of the human progress we’ve experienced over the past few thousands of years. We as humans in our current form have been around for about 100,000 years, but for 90,000 of those years, we basically did nothing. Cut to 9000 BC. Somewhere around that time, we shifted from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one. Previously, anthropologists thought this agricultural revolution was due to a desire for grains used for food, but more recently have hypothesized it was more likely because of a desire for barley in order to produce beer. Basically, our ancestors were a bunch of drunks who were only motivated to cultivate crops in order to get their alcoholic fill.

Contextually, beer played an enormous role in society back then. Feasts were a societal staple that served as both celebrations and important gatherings in order to form political alliances. At these feasts, the presence of beer was fundamental, giving rise to the need for mass production. Out of this desideratum for mass-produced beer came a slew of new inventions, designed to make harvesting simpler and more capacious: irrigation, the plow, the wheel, sickles, baskets, mathematics, mortars, a system of writing etc. These beer-born inventions would later be used to build entire civilizations. Without beer, historical architectural icons like the Great Pyramids plausibly could never have been built. As an aside, the process of beer cultivation, fermentation, and production gave us other alcoholic goodies, like wine and liquor. More recently, beer has been attributed to everything from the creation of modern refrigeration and germ theory to the invention of the factory and abolition of child labour.

Perhaps even more important, beer eliminated the herd mentality that had previously been so ubiquitous, thus leading to a breakdown in rigid social structure, resulting in cultural enlightenment that gave way to a more synergistic and creative civilization. The ideas that grew from that newfound broad-mindedness are infinite.

With the Super Bowl coming up this Sunday, most of us will undoubtedly be consuming ungodly amounts of beer as we watch overpaid giants in Spandex headbutt each other. Now, in addition to toasting to the hopeful victory of the team of your choice, you can raise a toast to beer, for giving us the world as we know it.

[Source: Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory / NY Times]