An Ancient Elixir: Beer in Sumer.

Author:Kelly, Jared

"He who does not know beer, does not know what is good" Sumerian Proverb (1) Beer is an alcoholic beverage typically brewed from cereals such as wheat and barley. It is a global phenomenon as the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world (2) and the third most widely consumed beverage behind water and tea. (3) Beer experienced a convergent evolution, developing in many geographically diverse areas, including the Far East, the Americas, and the Middle East. In China, a beer brewed from rice, grapes, honey, and hawthorn fruits known as 'kui' (4) emerged around 7,000 BCE. (5) The Inca Peoples of the Americas brewed a similar drink from maize known as "Chicha de jora," traces of which have been found at sites such as Machu Picchu. (6) The beverage was important to the Inca Peoples as a ritual consumption; and being forced to drink water in lieu of Chicha de jora was seen as a severe punishment. (7) Evidence exists that beer may have been brewed as far back as 10,000 years ago in the Amazon Basin, (8) making it a potential rival to the widely held belief that beer originated in Mesopotamia. (9) Current research indicates the genesis of beer occurred as an accidental discovery by Natufian peoples of the Levant--the ancestors of the Sumerians--around 10,000 BCE. Their discovery occurred after wild barley, which they collected in jars, was incidentally moistened coming into contact with wild yeast, thus allowing the process of fermentation to occur. (10) According to anthropologists Soloman Katz and Mary Voight, the Natufians continued this process as they sought the psychopharmalogical effects of alcohol and the social and nutritional benefits the infusion provided. (11) The discovery of beer was revolutionary and spread throughout the world, eventually leading to the drink which is often consumed in modern times.

The intended purpose of this article is to demonstrate the fundamental role beer had in Sumerian civilization, and the broader implications the drink had for the civilizations which succeeded Sumer. This paper will begin by outlining how the desire to ferment beer likely led to sedentism and the domestication of cereals in the Near and Middle East, it will then examine the fundamental role played in both Sumerian spiritual and economic matters. The paper will then speak to the important nutritional role beer played in the diets of Sumerians, to conclude the paper will address the spread of beer to other cultures in the Near and Middle East.

Beer as a Precursor to the Neolithic Revolution

The desire for beer was likely an important factor in the establishment of settled agriculture and an impetus for the Neolithic revolution in the Near and Middle East. In 1953--in what has come to be known as the Braidwood Symposium--a debate emerged if, in fact, beer rather than bread was the first processed item to be made from domesticated grains. (12) Prior to the symposium, Robert Braidwood's research on the emergence of the Neolithic revolution at the Qal'at Jarmo site in modern day Iraq found evidence of early cereal and legume domestication. Jarmo villagers grew two varieties of wheat (einkorn and emmer), lentils, and a primitive form of barley. (13) Braidwood published an article in Scientific American supporting a cause and effect relationship between the domestication of cereals in the Near East and the production of flour in order to produce breads. (14) This closely linked relationship was challenged by archaeo-botanist Jonathan Sauer of the University of Wisconsin, who questioned if the domestication of cereals occurred to produce beer rather than bread, leading to the symposium, "Did man once live by beer alone?," hosted by the American Anthropologist journal. The symposium considered the question of whether the discovery of fermentation served as a precursor to targeted selection and the domestication of cereals. The symposium participants ultimately came to the consensus that the cultivation of early cereal crops in the near East would have been better suited to produce beer as opposed to bread.

Numerous experts have supported this hypothesis since the Braidwood Symposium, including Charlie Bamforth (the Chair of the Food Science Department at the University of California Davis (15)), and Soloman Katz of the University of Pennsylvania, (16) as an explanation for the domestication of cereals. Emergent archeological findings further bolstered this hypothesis in recent years, including chemical analyses conducted on trough-shaped stone vessels that could hold 160 liters, found at the Gobekli Tepe, which is the currently-known oldest known temple in the world (approximately 11,600 years old). The analysis, conducted by Dr. Martin Zarnkow of the Technical University of Munich-Weihenstephan, found substances testing positive for calcium oxalate, a constituent that develops following the mashing, soaking, and fermentation of grains. (17) In 2009, Dr. Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania, found chemical evidence of tartaric acid, which accumulates during the production of alcoholic beverages, in stone vessels at the Neolithic site of Kortik Tepe. (18) Archaeologists suggest that nomadic peoples used these vessels to brew beers from harvested wild grasses. As a result of these findings, it has been forwarded that hunter-gathers congregated at religious sites for ceremonies and were enticed to undertake communal work and as a result settle in order to worship more regularly and experience the mood altering effects and nutrition beer had to offer. (19) This hypothesis has been bolstered by a team from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo, who following the conclusion of genetic testing, determined that the earliest domestication of grain occurred in the area of Karacadag very close to the Gobekli Tepe, providing additional evidence the production of alcohol and the domestication of grain were intimately interrelated. (20)

The desire to consume alcohol and engage in rituals was a probable reason for the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to sedentism in both the Near and Middle East. For the Natufians, the consumption of alcohol had social benefits, as it had quick-acting elevating effects on emotions and contained perception-altering qualities. As a result, it was important in both secular and sacred events, such as during marriage ceremonies and social gatherings. Throughout the world individuals often appear to invest colossal amounts of energy and many times risk their safety in the pursuit of a food with mind altering or psychopharmacological properties. As a result, ritual practices often became intertwined with these foods. An example of this practice can be seen in the pre-Columbian rites of passage of the coastal Southern California Chumash peoples. A beverage known as momoy created using the cardiotoxic and hallucinogenic flowers of Datura wrightii was given to boys of about eight years of age. The...

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