Beer Archaeologist: How Alcohol Shaped Our Civilization

Professor Patrick McGovern, a world authority on ancient alcoholic beverages, describes how alcohol had a profound effect on early societies.

Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has one of the coolest jobs in the world. Some have called him “the Indiana Jones of Alcohol” or “the beer archaeologist”. What he does is recreate the world's oldest drinks by finding and utilizing organic material at archaeological sites. A world authority on ancient alcoholic beverages, he’s found humanity’s oldest drinks and re-made some of them, like a beer from the legendary King Midas's court and a 9000-year-old Chinese rice and honey drink from the Neolithic period.


In a recent interview with National Geographic, McGovern shared his insights on the importance of alcohol in creating our civilization.

McGovern thinks humans were drinking alcohol from the very beginning, with different human groups around the world figuring out how to create fermented beverages from barley, wheat, and rice. In fact, McGovern proposes that beer was made before the first bread.

And due to its nutrional value and mind-altering effects, alcohol provided "incentives for hunter-gatherers to settle down and domesticate grain". So to drink that beer, they set up villages and new societies. They would also use alcohol in religious ceremonies and as medicine. As such, according to the scientist, "The beginnings of civilization were spurred on by fermented beverages."

One specific reason that alcohol became a key part of religious ceremonies is due to the process of fermentation. McGovern thinks it would have appeared very "mysterious" to the early humans, with its bubbling and mind-altering properties likely making people feel as if there's "an outside force communicating via this beverage". 

Dr. Pat and Sam Catagione of McGovern’s collaborator Dogfish Head Craft Brewery discussing the recreation of an ancient Scandinavian ale.

Another reason why alcohol was used it because paradoxically it's healthier (of course, if used in moderation). It kills bacteria and could have been a safer drinking choice than "raw water".

Historically, alcohol was also used as medicine until relatively recently. Romans and Greeks used wine within their medicines and, certainly, even today we keep hearing about studies that speak to how a glass or two of wine a day is likely to add to your health.

How does the biomolecular archaeologist create the ancient drinks?

He describes the process this way:

"When analyzing something, I work from a minuscule amount of chemical, botanical, and archaeological data. I look for principal ingredients: Does it have a grain? A fruit? An herb? Then I take bits of information from texts or frescoes and re-create the process, replicating pottery or collecting local yeast. Some methods carry on for thousands of years. In Burkina Faso they still mash carbs into sugar exactly how the ancient Egyptians did in 3500 B.C."

Want to learn more about ancient beer? Watch this talk with Professor McGovern:

You can learn more about Professor McGovern and follow his lectures here and you can order some of the ancient beer he created here.

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