The human penchant for the consumption of psychoactive substances is a part of ourselves like our thirst for water. Even modern day society is structured around drinking events, each differing with levels of scale and which beverage is deemed appropriate. Whether it is tea time or a glass of wine, neither is a necessity for overall health and is only seen as a means for hospitality. For better or for worse, the benefits and allure for mind-altering effects play a role in our feasting habits, rituals, code of conduct, work, taxation and our basic dietary requirements. Yet it was not until the early 19th century when the cynicism towards alcohol developed, and so to the association of intoxication with adolescent behavior. The result of which has shifted the attention of consumption from its cultural importance to its ill effects on society. This does not imply humans have not been wary of alcohol’s harmful effects on the body. Indeed, an ancient Egyptian letter revealed a teacher pleading with their pupil to return to their studies and refrain from over-consumption:
I am told that thou forsakest books (and) dost abandon thyself to pleasure. Thou dost wander from tavern to tavern. Every evening the smell of beer, The smell of beer frightens men away (from thee). It corrupts they soul, (and) thou art like a broken oar. Thou canst guide to neither side. Thou art like a temple without a god, (like) a house without bread. Thou art detected as thou climbest up the walls, And breakest the plank. The people flee from thee, And thou dost strike and wound them. O, that thou wouldst comprehend that wine is an abomination And that thou wouldst abjure the pomegranate-drink; That thou wouldst not set they heart on fig-wine, And that thou woulds forget the carob-wine
Despite the clear distaste for consumption this teacher has, a great deal of Egyptian medicine involved alcohol. There was even beer reserved for priests during times of worship. If beer was simply a beverage to satisfy hunger and thirst, would we see such fervent dedication to its crafting? This, then, signifies the cultural role drink plays with Egyptian society.
Thus to gain a better understanding of alcohol and its role in society, it is necessary to study alcohol with a focus on cultural importance, rather than addiction and abuse.
Alcohol’s primary purpose is to be consumed so it must constantly be produced. This introduces a need for production, technological development, a workforce, and a generation of wealth and income. As such, beer brewing plays a critical role in past economies. One example comes from the inhabitants at Hrísbrú, Iceland. Evidence from the pollen record, faunal remains, a large longhouse, and soil fertilization strongly suggests this area was subject to chiefly rule. There was an overabundance of barley grain, most likely for beer production (it would not make sense to produce beer in times of starvation), and plenty of cattle for human consumption, so it can be concluded that large feasts were held here. Over time, barley cultivation was abandoned and replaced by grazing land, correlating with the time chiefs surrendered political power in the 12th century. In any case, prior to the downfall of chieftains in Scandinavian society, they were using the consumption of alcohol to garner political power. The longhouse at Hrísbrú would require plenty of men to work the fields, and what better way to convince others to work than by offering beer. Beer’s production, then, was involved in all levels of this Icelandic economy. Thus, through the consumption of alcohol, hospitality, social networks and political bonds in human society were strengthened.
As described previously, alcohol has its own particular artifacts and rituals associated with it, due to its role in human material culture. Different cultures have their own drinking vessels as exemplified by the drinking horns of Nordic fame, puzzle jugs, Bell Beaker and Grooved Ware pottery, which is often assumed to have contained alcoholic beverages. With these, rituals develop. As described by Willis (2002), in 1873 Joseph Thomson came across a village in Tanzania performing a ritual:
“In the square of the village, propped against a tree, sat a poor woman, apparently half dead with illness of some sort, and looking very much as if she was in the stocks. Roundabout were some huge pots of native beer...In front of the woman the men danced in succession, with movements and gestures the most extraordinary… I learnt that they were employed in casting out devils from the woman in front of them, and to do this they required to use the most powerful charms they could think of, namely beer, dancing, and music.“ Simply put: If there’s no beer, it’s not a ritual [Willis 2002, pg 61]. Thus, alcohol consumption and production, and the associated material culture and rituals are intimately tied to human’s past. Furthermore, alcoholic drinks have substantial nutritional value and have formed a staple component of the diet in past societies. Cereal grains can become a porridge, bread or beer depending on which culinary practice is applied to it. Put in another way: alcohol represents value to a culture, and once it is consumed, that same value is absorbed into the body. It is of little surprise then, that fermented beverages have more cultural rituals associated with them when compared to other foods. Past and present societies use alcohol to define and reinforce cultural relations and identity. In previous anthropological studies, most of these societies promoted the drinking of alcoholic beverages as a means to provide refreshment and nutrition while strengthening family and community identity. Furthermore, each cultural identity developed as a response to the environment constructed by their ancestry (i.e. parents). In Europe, for example, the Roman historian Tacitus recorded the existence of a law amongst the Alemanii Germanic tribe, requiring the donation of beer to be made annually to the temple. How this tradition developed I am not sure, but it highlights beer’s role as a sacrificial item. With the production of fermented beverages humans have created a cultural variation in their diet, causing evolutionary change amongst the associated species and cultural change among different populations. Each successive population is subjected to more efficient brewing techniques, cultural variation in flavor, ritualistic and consumption practices, and more. This environmental inheritance has lead to certain populations to develop higher allele frequencies for more efficient ethanol metabolization. Hopefully, through research focused on the cultural context rather than abuse, a better understanding of humans relationship with alcohol will develop.
Alcohol deserves to be subjected to academic research as it can provide insight into human social behaviours, culture, and a better understanding of alcohol’s dangers and benefits.
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