The History of Alcohol

123 543
Published on 18 Mar 2017, 23:54
Our 9,000-year experimentation with drinking, explained.

Subscribe to TDC:

Main information source:

Video by Bryce Plank and Robin West

Ambitions by Glimpse (TDC Remix):
Midnight Memories by Glimpse
George Street Shuffle by Kevin MacLeod:
Inner Journey by Audionautix:
Voyer by Jingle Punks: YouTube Music Library

Alcohol. We began drinking it long before we even knew how to write. It's one of the most universally available, widely used — and commonly abused — chemical substances in human history.

This is the 9,000 year history of alcohol.

We’ve been using basic chemistry to make the stuff for thousands of years, but our primate ancestors first enjoyed its benefits millions of years ago.

See, when fruit falls to the forest floor and begins to decompose it produces a substance with a strong smell called ethanol, making it easier for apes to find. Ethanol also helps apes with digestion and allows them to fight off microbes that would otherwise make them sick.

This process of apes seeking out rotting fruit began to really ramp up 10 million years ago. That’s when a mutation of the ADH4 gene in African apes allowed them to suddenly begin digesting ethanol 40 times faster than before.

Ethanol is the least toxic type of alcohol and the only one used in beverages. As a chemical substance, ethanol is incredibly versatile. It has been recognized and mass-produced for thousands of years as a detectable indicator of food spoilage, a life-saving disinfectant, a beverage prized by the masses and perfected by connoisseurs. But it’s also powerfully addictive.

It’s made by yeasts—microscopic, single celled organisms. Yeasts consume sugar and convert it into ethanol and carbon dioxide. This process is called fermentation.

It’s unclear exactly when our species learned to master this process, but we probably stumbled upon the feel good effects of fermentation just like our ape ancestors—by accident. There is still a lot we don't know about the brain effects of alcohol and how exactly it does what it does--but we do know it influences several major neurochemicals implicated in pleasure, motivation, inhibition and reward.

The earliest traceable instance of deliberate fermentation occurred 9,000 years ago when the Chinese were making a kind of wine from rice, honey, and fruit. Scientists confirmed this by analysing ancient chemical residues found at an archaeological site in Jiahu.

Around this time corn was domesticated. The harvesting of grapes began 1,000 years later.

In 5,400 B.C. we see the first evidence of wine production at Hajji Firuz in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

Alcohol appears in Europe for the first time in Scotland 6,500 years ago.

Barley beer was first produced in Godin Tepe, Iran, an ancient Sumerian fortress that would later become a major stop along the legendary Silk Road trade route.

While some fermentation ideas obviously spread around, it seems like alcoholic beverages, just like the agriculture they were based on, were invented independently many times throughout human history on every continent, except Antarctica. And just about every plant containing some starch or sugar has been fermented for our enjoyment including agave, apples, birch tree sap, bananas, cocoa, cassavas, corn, cacti, berries, rice, potatoes, palms, pineapples, pumpkins, and persimmons.

In fact, the early benefits to fermentation were primarily nutritional. In ancient societies beer was a dietary staple—like an enriched liquid bread that provided calories and essential vitamins, while delivering hydration in a more sterile way than water even could. The fact that it got you buzzed was just a bonus.

For decades, anthropologists have debated whether the production of beer and other alcoholic drinks was actually the primary reason for the Neolithic — or agricultural — revolution: the period in history when we transitioned from being wandering nomads to living a fixed, agriculture-based lifestyle.

It’s sort of a chicken vs the egg question, which was most vital for the development of civilization: beer or bread?

The best argument that beer was the prime motivator may be the first large-scale brewing and winemaking operations that emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt 5,000 years ago. It’s no coincidence that the construction of over 100 enormous pyramids — the greatest structures in ancient history — were built right alongside the creation of the first large-scale production breweries. All that hard work — thousands of people each burning thousands of calories a day — had only just become possible with the introduction of the most efficient method for delivering nutrients to our bodies up to that point: beer.