Civilization and Beer: The Chicken or the Egg?

It’s well known that beer was created by the earliest civilizations and has remained a major part of human life since antiquity. However, new studies seem to indicate that society was formed as a result of beer, rather than beer brewing stemming from the birth of society. It’s a “chicken or the egg” question for the thirsty philosopher – which came first?

The Rise of Agriculture

Both civilization and brewing can be linked to one of the most significant events in human history – the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones. Most archaeologists have assumed that cereals were grown as foodstuffs but it might actually be that they were grown more for use in brewing than as a meal option. 

One of the things that points in this direction is the considerable effort to make grains edible. That’s a lot of work for little reward. Add to this the fact that agricultural societies were very religious and held celebrations throughout the year and you have a recipe for early brewing.

In fact, ancient ritual celebrations were part of what made society grow and beer was most likely present as a religious element, as well as a social tool. You must remember that celebrations in early cultures were much more significant than modern “parties.” They were used to create support for different factions and to create debts too. For example, if you were invited to someone’s celebration, then you were honor-bound to do the same for them. 

Did Beer Make Civilization?

While beer did not make civilization, it certainly seems to have helped with its development. In addition, there is some suspicion that beer brewing actually predates the rise of agriculture which would make it one of the decisive factors in the eventual development of sedentary cultures and their corresponding interaction with each other. Therefore, while beer probably didn’t singlehandedly alter the way ancient cultures lived; the brewing process did have an immense effect on the birth of civilization.

It Wasn’t Our Beer

Of course, if you were to somehow transport yourself back in time to meet those early brewers, you likely would not recognize the product. In fact, there are very few similarities between ancient and modern beer other than the use of cereal grains and the presence of live yeast. If you were to try a sample of it, you would likely find it bland, watery and unenjoyable.

Posted on October 1, 2012 and filed under Facts & History, 2012.