Which came first? Brewers or Farmers?

One of the tenets of Civilization 101 is that we homo sapiens decided it was far easier to grow food that gather it, and thus the agrarian age started. From there, all hell broke loose.

As usual, reality is a bit more nuanced. Some archaeologists are are putting forth the hypothesis that the reason we turned to farming was not for food, but rather for drink.

May beer have helped lead to the rise of civilization? It’s a possibility, some archaeologists say.

Their argument is that Stone Age farmers were domesticating cereals not so much to fill their stomachs but to lighten their heads, by turning the grains into beer. That has been their take for more than 50 years, and now one archaeologist says the evidence is getting stronger.

Signs that people went to great lengths to obtain grains despite the hard work needed to make them edible, plus the knowledge that feasts were important community-building gatherings, support the idea that cereal grains were being turned into beer, said archaeologist Brian Hayden at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

The problem in the “farming for food” theory is that the grains used (barley, rice) were labor intensive. It would have been far easier, at least from a diet perspective, to gather foods more readily accessible. Besides, there’s little evidence to suggest that homo-sapiens, pre-Agrarian, were fond of grains. Again, this is likely a labor question.

The article suggests that feasts, especially those that occurred when different cultures met, drove the need for beer, and thus the need for grain.

“Feasts are essential in traditional societies for creating debts, for creating factions, for creating bonds between people, for creating political power, for creating support networks, and all of this is essential for developing more complex kinds of societies,” Hayden explained. “Feasts are reciprocal — if I invite you to my feast, you have the obligation to invite me to yours. If I give you something like a pig or a pot of beer, you’re obligated to do the same for me or even more.”

“In traditional feasts throughout the world, there are three ingredients that are almost universally present,” he said. “One is meat. The second is some kind of cereal grain, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, in the form of breads or porridge or the like. The third is alcohol, and because you need surplus grain to put into it, as well as time and effort, it’s produced almost only in traditional societies for special occasions to impress guests, make them happy, and alter their attitudes favorably toward hosts.”

Ever for such a nuanced hypothesis, the reality of what happened is likely far more complex. The need for security has been discussed as a motivating factor into creating communities, as well as staying close to fertile lands that could be counted on to provide nutrition on a regular basis, all played some role. The question is “how much?”

So for those of you who get their ancient history lessons from playing Civilization V, note that there may be a bug in the game. If you get farms before meeting other civilizations, you may be deviating from what actually happened.