The conventional story of the origin of modern civilisation places the discovery of agriculture as a major turning point. And this, it is usually claimed, was because organised cities can't grow before they have a reliable food supply from the deliberate planting of grains for producing bread and related foodstuffs. So, crudely, the need for bread is critical to the development of the city and the organised society.

But there has been some recent speculation that what actually drove the development of cities and agriculture was the need to make beer not bread.

The original idea seems to be from JD Sauer as discussed in a 1953 symposium (my emphasis):

It is generally assumed that the appearance of domesticated cereals in the Near East was intimately linked with the use of these grains for the preparation of flour for bread making...

...Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread making?

This blog, discussing the discovery of beer-making at Göbekli Tepe, argues:

Alcohol serves both ritual and social functions, and has a magical, transcendent (mind-altering) capacity. Unlike food, which appears naturally in the environment, alcohol must be manufactured. Humans didn't need to settle down to produce food. If the the structures of Göbekli Tepe tell us anything, it's that they had enough surplus time and energy that they could use it to build cathedrals. The motivation to produce beer--a substance they could not reliably produce without agriculture--would be a pretty obvious one for neolithic people looking to spend more time praying, celebrating, and feasting.

Göbekli Tepe is an archeological site in Turkey that is nearly 12,000 years old (so about as far in time from the pyramids as they are from us) and has produced several major challenges to the normally accepted timescale of when organised civilisation and cities actually started.

In discussing this LiveScience argues (my emphasis):

Some researchers suggest that beer arose 11,500 years ago and drove the cultivation of grains. Because grains require so much hard work to produce ... beer brewing would have been reserved for feasts with important cultural purposes.

Those feasts — and alcohol-induced friendliness — may have enabled hunter-gatherers to bond with larger groups of people in newly emerging villages, fueling the rise of civilization. At work parties, beer may have motivated people to put a little elbow grease into bigger-scale projects such as building ancient monuments.

"Production and consumption of alcoholic beverages is an important factor in feasts facilitating the cohesion of social groups, and in the case of Göbekli Tepe, in organizing collective work," wrote Antiquity paper co-author Oliver Dietrich in an email. Dietrich is an archaeologist for the German Archaeological Institute.

So does the origin of civilisation (and cities and agriculture) owe more to the pursuit of beer than the pursuit of food?

  • 3
    Because: priorities! – Andrew Grimm Jan 31 at 19:59
  • What sort of evidence would you accept to convince you that this speculation is right or wrong? I am having trouble imagining what an answer here might look like. – Oddthinking Jan 31 at 22:29
  • I have seen claims akin to this one a handful of times, and they make it sound modestly plausible (keeping in mind that we're talking about the impetus to expand agriculture beyond "subsistence" for one's own family). – Daniel R Hicks Jan 31 at 23:37
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    "...alcohol-induced friendliness..." -- That's the point where the author lost me. :-D – DevSolar Feb 1 at 12:30
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    It's probably worth mentioning that, jokes about alcohol aside, beer was actually the first reliably clean (more or less) source of water. That alone would actually be an incredible impetus to develop more beer. The people group that had better access to beer would have lower mortality, less illness, and thus more likelihood to succeed in battle and acquire more territory and resource. – called2voyage Feb 1 at 13:34

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