March 28, 2013

Did beer give us civilization? I doubt it.

Beer — was grain domesticated for it to actually help create civilization?
Photo from National Post
The idea that man first decided to domesticate grain for some forerunner of today's beer, rather than food, sounds intriguing, and just enough against conventional wisdom for somebody to trot out "paradigm shift" ideas, quotes from famous dead scientists taken out of context, and more.

Here's a study about the research claims, coming from (you hosers, eh?) Canada! And, here's a New York Times column by a psychiatrist, making the social psychology claims for why this would be true.

But, in reality?

I think it's all foamy froth, punning idea highly intended.

Let me dissect the idea in general, then specifics of both links.

I've read reviews and commentary on the idea in general. I find it interesting, at best, and almost SEO-hypish. If it had been about wine, or "wine" from other fruits, I'd be more likely to believe it. Humans would have seen drunk elephants or whatever, known something about the intoxication of rotten fruit, and gone from there. But, the only way they'd know about rotten grain becoming intoxicating is from that grain having first been stored. And, that storage would have been for food purposes.

First, those crazy Canadians:
While the SFU researchers say they haven’t found a “smoking brew pot” providing absolute proof that a thirst for beer drove the Natufian people to become farmers, they “conclude that feasting and brewing very likely provided a key link between increasing ‘complexity’ and the adoption of cereal cultivation.”
In other words, they haven't found anything. Certainly not anything new.

In fact, their study is that old bugaboo of research in the social sciences. It's ... wait for it ... it's ... metadata, or metaresearch, if you will!
The three Simon Fraser University researchers, led by SFU emeritus professor Brian Hayden, synthesized dozens of studies on the “Natufian” culture that, 10,000 years ago, occupied the region immediately east of the Mediterranean Sea, today’s Middle East.
Run like hell from hyped claims based on metadata. You don't believe me? Ask Bob Carroll at Skeptic's Dictionary.

The Canadians go on to talk about what they see as the importance of their unsubstantiated ideas:
Hayden told Postmedia News that “there are lots of implications” of the team’s findings, and that “brewing was just part of the picture” during humanity’s pivotal shift to settled, stable communities with enough food supplies to foster more complex cultural developments.

But beer-making, he added, was one factor “that we think was important in making feasts such powerful tools for attracting people and getting them committed to producing surpluses.”
In short, beer was the original opiate of the masses.

This, in turn, is based on the idea, powerful still in many left-liberal circles and claiming some weight with me, about the dark side of the agricultural revolution, namely, the development of class-based societies and the possession of private property.

That said, you'd really have to really want to get drunk to drink the ancient swill:
“Beers made in traditional tribal or village societies generally are quite different from modern industrial beers,” they state in the paper. “Traditional beers often have quite low alcohol contents (2 to 4 per cent) include lactic acid fermentation giving them a tangy and sour taste, contain various additives such as honey or fruits, and vary in viscosity from clear liquids, to soupy mixtures with suspended solids, to pastes.”
That, then, gets back to what I mentioned up top. Why not eat some semi-rotten, fermenting apples or peaches instead? Or, better yet, experiment with using cloth to filter solids out, and then fire for mild distillation?

Add in the fact that the authors talk about the addition of fruits, but fail to talk about fermented fruits, and it seems like an oversell.

At the NYT, Jeffrey Kahn picks up the social leveling idea and runs with it:
Once the effects of these early brews were discovered, the value of beer (as well as wine and other fermented potions) must have become immediately apparent. With the help of the new psychopharmacological brew, humans could quell the angst of defying those herd instincts. Conversations around the campfire, no doubt, took on a new dimension: the painfully shy, their angst suddenly quelled, could now speak their minds. 

But the alcohol would have had more far-ranging effects, too, reducing the strong herd instincts to maintain a rigid social structure. In time, humans became more expansive in their thinking, as well as more collaborative and creative. A night of modest tippling may have ushered in these feelings of freedom — though, the morning after, instincts to conform and submit would have kicked back in to restore the social order. 
But, if grain DID have any mind-altering effects, maybe it wasn't even from distillation.

Especially when colder and wetter periods hit the Fertile Crescent, can anybody say ergot fungus? St. Anthony's fire or ergotism as a result?

Many people think of medieval Europe and rye ergot. However, the fungus also grows fairly well on barley and wheat, the two common grains of the Middle East.

In short, if Neolithic Middle Easterners were getting wasted at the dawn of civilization, they may have been taking acid trips, not getting drunk.

So, for right now, my perspective? File this under Wolfgang Paul's "not even wrong."

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