Which Came First? Bread or Beer?

The world's oldest paycheck, which says the workers were paid in beer. [PHOTO: ekaloria.com]

The world’s oldest paycheck, which says the workers were paid in beer. [PHOTO: ekaloria.com]

Alcohol is integral to our existence as a species. Every culture, from tribes in the Amazon to the millionaire on his yacht drink some form of fermented beverage. Whether that takes the form of manioc root fermented with human saliva, or the finest champagne, we humans have been enjoying alcohol for thousands of years.

The current working theory of civilization in respect to agriculture states that humans settled down into villages and cities in order to cultivate grain in order to make bread. However, some researchers have found circumstantial evidence that supports a different narrative: that early humans grew grain not for food, but for beer.

The Ancient History and Culture of Alcohol

A depiction of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. [PHOTO: americangallery.com]

A depiction of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. [PHOTO: americangallery.com]

The earliest depiction we have of beer in the archaeological record is a pictogram on a seal dating to the 4,000s BC. It was discovered in an ancient Mesopotamian settlement in the area of what is now modern-day Iraq. The drawing depicts two figures drinking from a pot from two straws.

Beer in the ancient world was a social event, often drunk communally in groups. Of course, it looked a lot different than modern beer. Early beer resembled soup rather than a drink. The ancients took wild grains, pounded them, and mixed them with water. The mixture was fermented and drunk through straws in order to filter out some of the impurities.

It’s unclear how humans first discovered fermentation. It was probably accidental, by discovering fruits or grains that had fermented all by themselves in the wild. Gradually, we learned to reproduce the tasty experience.

Most of what we know of ancient beer comes from Mesopotamia, Sumeria, and ancient Egypt, since those civilizations were some of the first to regularly write things down. In fact, beer is the most frequently mentioned food in early examples of writing across Egypt and Mesopotamia. It’s clear it didn’t take long for alcohol to become an invaluable cultural food.

The Egyptians greeted each other with the phrase “bread and beer”, and alcohol was considered something akin to magic. Think about it, the ancients throw an almost indigestible grass into some water, crush it a little bit, and it eventually turns into something tasty that makes the water safe to drink, and also magically helps clean wounds. It would have seemed like a gift from the divine.

By Roman and Greek times, Romans and Greeks had their own gods of alcohol, and other cultures, like the Gallic tribes living in what is now modern-day France, drank beer in honor of their harvest goddess.

Ever since, humans have never stopped drinking.

Compelling Evidence

While the timeline of events is still a little foggy as to which came first, bread or beer, a new study on one ancient pre-agrarian society in the fertile crescent is starting to poke some holes in the current accepted theory of civilization. An article published by a group of scientists in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory details a study conducted on the Natufian culture, a culture that lived in the area of what is now modern-day Israel around 15,000 years ago.

“It has long been speculated,” the authors of the article wrote, “that increasing demands for cereals for the purposes of brewing beer led to domestication in the Near Eastern Natufian cultures.” The scientists examined a group of tools unearthed in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Natufian culture lived, and concluded that brewing beer was an integral part to Nastufian society.

While this may seem to be only one isolated incident where a society seemed to have started cultivating grain for beer first rather than for bread, it’s not. Across the world, in Mexico, the same thing may have happened.

In Mexico, the ancestral grass of modern maize (a corn-like plant), was teosinte. Teosint is not all that useful for making corn flour that could be used for bread or tortillas. Instead, it’s much better suited for fermenting into alcohol. Since humans usually go with what’s easiest first and then evolve to more complex processes (and since early Mexicans would have had to first cultivate teosinte into it’s more bread-friendly descendant), it seems that Mexicans settled down in order to cultivate large amounts of teosinte in order to brew beer before they ever thought of cultivating teosinte into bread-friendly maize.

While the debate is far from solved, the evidence is mounting. The science of making bread is relatively complex and difficult to stumble upon compared to the process of making beer. Early alcohol was little more than grains pounded and mixed with water. And, while bread might not be much more than that, too, it’s starting to look as if beer, and not bread, is responsible for the start of human civilization.