Prehistoric Happy Hour

A very short book excerpt

Joe McKendry

Anthropologists have long debated the causes of the Neolithic Transition, the piecemeal process of domesticating plants and animals that began more than 11,000 years ago. One theory posits that humans first cultivated cereal crops less for processing into food than for making beer, a beverage at once nutritious, intoxicating, and germ-free. DNA analysis shows that domesticated yeast strains are at least as old as domesticated grain, and agriculture may have been the only way to ensure a year-round supply for brewing.

The beer-before-bread hypothesis is complemented by another: competitive feasting. According to this theory, would-be chieftains used alcohol to attract people to feasts that reinforced hierarchies, strengthened social bonds, and, not least, introduced new foods and technologies. Equal parts political rally, fraternity bash, and product launch, the best feasts required immense preparation. As agricultural societies grew more unequal, elites found another use for alcohol: as compensation for peasant labor. Alcohol fostered a craving for repeated use that induced peasants to keep producing surpluses, which fueled emergent civilizations and gave rulers the means to stay on top.

—Adapted from The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business, by David T. Courtwright, published by Harvard University Press

This article appears in the April 2019 print edition with the headline “Prehistoric Happy Hour.”