April Holloway | Ancient Origins | December 28, 2013
Around 11,500 years ago, hunter gatherers ceased being nomadic and began to cultivate crops and form settlements. But what is it that made our Stone Age ancestors start harvesting?
A logical explanation, and a widely held belief, is that it was done in order to eat. However, a growing body of research has shown that flour for making bread wasn’t the reason why Stone Age people first began growing and storing grain, like wheat and barley, rather it was beer.
The idea that Stone Age people started cultivated grains for alcohol instead of bread was first put forward in the 1950s when botanist Jonathan Sauer suggested that hunter gatherers needed more incentive than just food to completely change their lifestyle.
It was the discovery that a “mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage”, he suggested. Researchers have suggested that it wasn’t just the altered state of awareness that the people would have enjoyed from drinking beer, but it was also nutritionally superior to other food in their diet, apart from animal proteins.
According to Gloria Dawson, who recently revisited the theory in the science magazine Nautilus, beer was safer to drink than water because the fermentation process killed pathogenic microorganisms.
The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize. Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, has said the earliest evidence of beer-making comes from the Natufian culture, which was initially a hunter gatherer society that inhabited an area in the Eastern Mediterranean called the Levant (now Syria, Jordan, and Israel) about 13,000 years ago.
Archaeological remains found in this region include grinding equipment, boiling stones, cooking rocks, tools, and other items which suggest the inhabitants possessed the technology brewing requires. According to Hayden, once people understood the effects of alcohol, it became a central part of feasts and other social gatherings that forged bonds between people and inspired creativity.
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