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.

Beer Archaeologist: How Alcohol Shaped Our Civilization
Biomolecular Archaeologist Patrick McGovern AKA The Indiana Jones of Alcohol

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.

‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

Discovery of two giant radio galaxies hints at more to come

The newly discovered galaxies are 62x bigger than the Milky Way.

This image shows most of the giant radio galaxy MGTC J095959.63+024608.6; in red is the radio light from the giant radio galaxy, as seen by MeerKAT. It is placed ontop of a typical image of the night sky.

I. Heywood, University of Oxford / Rhodes University / South African Radio Astronomy Observatory / CC BY 4.0.
Surprising Science
  • Two recently discovered radio galaxies are among the largest objects in the cosmos.
  • The discovery implies that radio galaxies are more common than previously thought.
  • The discovery was made while creating a radio map of the sky with a small part of a new radio array.
Keep reading Show less

The secret life of maladaptive daydreaming

Daydreaming can be a pleasant pastime, but people who suffer from maladaptive daydreamers are trapped by their fantasies.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Maladaptive daydreamers can experience intricate, vivid daydreams for hours a day.
  • This addiction can result in disassociation from vital life tasks and relationships.
  • Psychologists, online communities, and social pipelines are spreading awareness and hope for many.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Mind & Brain

    Why it's important to admit when you're wrong

    Psychologists point to specific reasons that make it hard for us to admit our wrongdoing.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast