The link between beer and civilization

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WEB-beer-Mark Burnham

A new study out of SFU argues that beer was key to building society

By Alison Roach
Photos by Mark Burnham

The weekend before last, The New York Times ran an article entitled “How Beer Gave Us Civilization”, accompanied by a Far Side-esque cartoon of primitive humans having a kegger. Writing about the possible “social lubrication” effects of beer in ancient societies, the article cites work done by Dr. Brian Hayden, a recently retired SFU professor of archaeology. It was the most emailed piece on The New York Times website the weekend it ran.

In a recent interview with The Peak on the recent spotlight on his work, Hayden said with a laugh, “I was a little surprised, because it seemed like it was sort of a passing mention of some of our research and it sort of went off in a little bit of a different tangent than we were proposing. “It’s their take on things, so it’s fine.”

Hayden’s research was published in the Journal of Archeological Method and Theory this month, under the title “What was brewing in the Natufian? An Archeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic”.

The paper builds upon Hayden’s 25-year interest in the importance of feasting in traditional societies, working up to the idea that these peoples first domesticated plants and animals to facilitate feasting. Specifically, it claims that people domesticated grains so they could have beer at these parties.

“That triumvirate is basically meat, starches, and beer or alcohol of some sort. Typically beer though,” explained Hayden. “The feasts in those societies have to have those three things, or people don’t come.”
The idea is that these feasts helped build up political societies by creating a forum for people to “wheel and deal,” as it were. In the archeological record, signs of feasting start popping up about 12,000 years ago in the near east, as well as signs of political centralization and hierarchy. That’s where beer came in.

“It attracts people, but it also makes them more open to suggestion, to enter into relationships, to create binding contracts for future commitments and things of that nature,” said Hayden.

“The argument is that people started domesticating grains in order to hold more feasts — to create more beer.” According to Hayden, the domestication for feasting theory is a controversial one, and has only been around for the last 10 to 15 years. The idea that grains might have been domesticated in the near east in order to produce beer, on the other hand, has been around since the 1950s. “It’s been in kind of speculative limbo all this time,” Hayden said.

Hayden worked with then SFU undergraduate students Neil Canuel and Jennifer Shanse, to try and give this theory some flesh. Though Hayden had been turning over the idea in his mind for the past 25 years or so, it really only got off the ground when Canuel expressed an interest in the topic.

The team pulled together a pre-existing understanding of the practical difficulties of cultivating grains, some experimental work on the production of beer from these wild grains, and the evidence for feasting in order to make this connection between beer and feasting that has not been made before.

“What we’ve done basically is drawn together a lot of different lines of evidence, including the genetic evidence of yeast, the technical requirement, evidence for social complexity and feasting, and pulled it all together and tried to make a better argument rather than just a speculative idea,” Hayden explained.

All the research done for the paper worked off recorded finds and previous archaeological theory. Hayden would like to study the physical objects behind the assertions at some point, although most of those are in the near east, and are part of closely guarded collections.

On the impact of the paper, Hayden said: “I think it really puts another strong support post in that whole argument and the whole approach, which is very controversial. A lot of people don’t agree with it — that feasting is the reason that animals and plants were domesticated. But I think we’re developing more and more strong arguments for supporting that case, and this is just one of the main pillars of support.”

Hayden hopes to keep working on the theory, and is currently corresponding with a colleague in Israel who is working on ground stone stools like the ones that would be used in brewing beer, but has no concrete plans now that he’s retired.

At the very end of our interview, I realised that I had actually taken an introductory archeology class with Hayden during his last semester of teaching, the highlight of which was when Hayden took a spear he’d brought to the class to examine, and threw into the wall of our AQ lecture room.

“That is fun,” Hayden chuckled when I mentioned this, “Always one of the high points.” When I asked whether putting holes in the school ever landed him in any hot water, he laughed it off. “No, no. It’s fine.”