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A Little History of How Beer Shaped Our Past and Current Worlds

on 01/10/14 at 11:47 am


images“Thirst rather than hunger may have been the stimulus behind the origin of small grain agriculture.”

—Jonathan Sauer, 1953

“Man cannot live on beer alone. … Are we to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?”

—Paul Mangledorf, 1953

Doing field research is incredibly exciting because it usually leads to new discoveries. This is what happened to me one day in the highlands of southern Ethiopia overlooking the Rift Valley, where I was working with an ethnic group, the Gamo, who live in southwestern Ethiopia. I wanted to look at how the Gamo produce, use and discard their pottery on an everyday basis. My goal was to understand the Gamo worldview in relation to pottery, which would aid in interpreting the pottery found at Gamo archaeological sites. This method is used in the subfield of archaeology known as ethnoarchaeology, which is the study of modern material culture to assist in the archaeological interpretation of the past. As I was interviewing women about their house-hold pottery, I kept seeing pots that looked as if acid was eating the interiors. Every time I asked a woman what was causing this, she would state that “the beer is eating the pots.” I believe that lactic acid, a common component of African beer, is causing this erosion on the pot’s interior. I subsequently noted this severe surface erosion in 100 percent of the pots used for beer.

This unexpected find motivated me to look into the role beer plays in contemporary indigenous societies throughout the world. I discovered that beer is an essential staple for many communities, often considered a food rather than a beverage. Importantly, the consumption of beer adds considerably to daily caloric intake. It has more protein, vitamins and minerals than unleavened bread, and the low alcohol content kills bacteria that may be present in the unprocessed water. The importance of beer in many communities today is illustrated by the fact that one-eighth to one-fourth of all grains grown in sub-Saharan Africa are used for the processing of beer (1). Beer binds people together and serves to reinforce social hospitality and communality during ceremonial and everyday activities. It is a common cultural marker of wealth and status; it may represent a payment of tribute to chiefs, and it is essential in the redistribution of wealth. The processing and consumption of beer pervades many cultural acts, and be- cause of its social, economic and political value it is of great significance, both as a dietary staple and as a luxury food.