Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Second Chicha Post: 'Man Never Remains Contented with Water as a Beverage.'

Have you heard the one about how civilization owes its existence to beer?

The theory goes something like this: Planting and processing cereals just for food wasn’t worth all the time and effort. So we factor in beer’s importance to feasts and sacred rites, which were key in the development of communities. Suddenly tracking down those wild grasses and taming them for farms makes a lot more sense.

I'm not sure I buy the theory, but I enjoy it. It's good marketing.

However: Bear in mind that this is not a new theory, although recent studies back it up. This article on one such study notes that archaeologists have been saying this for more than 50 years. I reckon most research on the topic looks at the Eurasian peoples who might have been brewing more than 11,000 years ago.

But what were the Americans up to?

I don't mean us gringos. I mean the Mesoamericans. The Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, and various tribes betwixt.

Just as Eurasian peoples tamed wild grass and planted precursors to barley and wheat, the Mesoamericans were taming wild grasses to domesticate corn. Incidentally they were also domesticating manioc, a root also known as yuca or cassava. And they were making beer out of all of this stuff.

Now we go back to 1892 and the words of a man named Edward John Payne. He was a 19th century barrister and historian who wrote a lot about the pre-Colombian Americas. In noting the importance of farming in the establishment of civilization, he made special mention of one use in particular: "Man never remains contented with water as a beverage." Indeed. He goes on:

Savages drink the warm blood of game, and the oil of marine animals; in hot climates, the juice of fruits, and the sweet sap of shrubs and trees, either in the natural form or diluted with water, are favourite beverages. Cookery, which preceded the artificial production of food [i.e., agriculture], suggests drinking the liquor in which the food is prepared: and in this practice we probably have the origin of the preparation of drinks from roots and cereals. Alimentary plants have been almost universally employed in the manufacture of beverages. Passing over the application of fruits in this way, it may be noticed that in tropical America the sweet potato and manioc have always been to some extent thus employed. The use of corn, of all descriptions, for this purpose is of scarcely less antiquity than its general use as food: and from our knowledge of the tastes of savage man it may be fairly inferred that the practice received a powerful stimulus from the discovery that infusions of corn, like drinks made from the juices of fruits and the sap of trees, acquire an intoxicating quality by fermentation. The facilities which agriculture afforded for making intoxicating drink, in quantities proportionate to the industry of the cultivator, must have had an important influence in inducing man to adopt it as the basis of life: it is at any rate certain that in most parts of the Old and New World the produce of cereal agriculture was from an early period largely consumed in the manufacture of some species of beer, and that the early cultivators drank it to excess.
Breaking it down: Cooking came before farming. Brewing was a natural consequence of cooking. Farming took a lot of work but made brewing much easier. So beer probably had a lot to do with convincing us louts to settle down and till the earth.

But hang on, Payne isn't done yet. You haven't heard the bit about how civilization bears the seeds of its own destruction. Those silly barbarians drank too much and ruined themselves. Hmmm.

More to come.

1 comment:

  1. Read "Uncorking the Past," by Patrick E. McGovern. He is th leading authority on ancient alcoholic beverages, and constantly analyzes ancient wares for evidence of alcohol production around the world. Great read.