Most everyone knows that Alcohol has been part of human culture and society for a very, very long time. But when was it exactly that humans drank the first drop of alcohol? Was alcohol invented? Discovered? And how much did our ancient longing for the drink actually affect us as a species? We will find out how on today’s episode!
Alcohol really is the by-product of a very non-human creature, a wild strand of yeast called Saccharomyces cervisiae. The yeast, which is millions of years old, has evolved quite a lot over time but ultimately managed to develop some interesting qualities: feed on sugar to create alcohol! The alcohol part of the equation actually is more of a waste-product than anything else. It’s the sugar, the food source, that is critical for the survival of the yeast. It developed the ability to generate alcohol in order to get rid of other micro-organisms that would compete for the sugar source, generally a fruit or a berry. Even though the alcohol produced is never very strong (always less than 5%), this newly created mixture is enough to get rid of most of the bugs, making it possible for the yeast to feed on more sugar, and create more alcohol, etc…
When a fruit fell from a tree and cracked itself open on a rock, when grains got soaked in the rain or when a beehive plunged into a pond, the yeast soon found its way into the now exposed sugar and soon enough alcohol began to form. This ingenious mechanism soon became well-known in the animal world. It has been demonstrated that animals such as tigers, rhinos, wild pigs and even elephants do consume alcohol in the wild and have likely done so for a long, long while, possibly even before the rise of the modern human. The reason behind it probably lay in the higher calorific content of alcohol, as well as the decidedly universal appeal of alcohol-induced exhilaration. Long before our ancestors started what we now call civilization, they probably were already looking for sources of the precious beverage.
Our attraction for the delicious, but rare, beverage grew stronger over time. Some scientists actually theorize that one of the reasons human fondness for alcohol is almost universal today is because our pre-human ancestors were those who were able to get their hands on most of the alcoholic fruits and thus obtain more energy and calories, multiplying their chances of surviving in the process. Sometime during this process, the human body started to adapt to this regular consumption of alcohol. After a time, humans became able to process more and more of the energy they got from alcohol and nowadays, 10% of the enzymes in the human liver are solely dedicated to breaking down ingested alcohol. Some other researchers even believe that alcohol was one of the most crucial reasons why our forefathers decided to give up being hunter-gatherers and switched to sedentary agriculture: growing their own fruits and grains, they’d be able to control the production of alcohol and secure a better end product for themselves and their community. Then, after making the shift, the drink helped these newly settled farmers to thrive, being both a safer alternative to sometimes polluted water, a higher energy and nutrient diet and something to further the community’s culture and sense of belonging. Truly, alcohol has been a part of humanity’s culture and society since even before there was any culture to speak of. It is as such, our very oldest tradition that we should feel proud to celebrate.
- (1) Pollan, Michael (2013). Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation . London: Allen Lane.
- (2) Katz, Sandor Ellix (2012). The Art of fermentation – An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and processes from around the World. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- (I) Mesopotamian Goddesses drinking beer. From the Matrifocus website.
- (II) Scene from “Labors of the month September” of the XVth century German Codex Schürstab. From the E-Codices project. Creative Commons License
- (III) Sumerian men drinking beer. From the Historytaste website.
- (IV)Rotten Apples. Picture by Flickr user 365_153. Creative Commons License.
- (V) Alcohol in Glasses. Picture by Flickr user Kimery Davis. Creative Commons License.