Monday, March 2, 2015

Cerveza For Your Ciempozuelos

It's likely beakers were used for alcohol, probably barely beer, but also meads, nogs and other cereal beers.  The evidence isn't overwhelming for all of Europe, but it leads that direction.  At least in Northern Spain, there seems to be a fairly good association with alcohol and beakers.  This thesis by Vaca Alonso examines the earliest alcohols from the Early Neolithic through the Bronze Age in Northern Spain.

La Sima by Luis Pascual Repiso, Aratikos Arqueólogos S. L.

She points out that alcohol beverages have likely been in Europe since the Early Neolithic.  Various evidences from Cardial to Grooved Ware point that direction.  Her conclusion is that beer takes on a new meaning with the ideology and idealism of Bell Beaker Culture.

To go off tangent here...

One thing not too surprising is the presence of henbane in some of the Meseta beakers.  In fact, before beer was hopped, probably all beer gruits, including those of the Christian era, were mildly psychoactive.  Henebane was probably one of many different additives used for beer gruit.

European purity laws had tinkered with regulating beer ingredients since the eleventh century, but it was the Protestant Reformation that fueled the anti-gruit lobby (see here) and this was imposed by various duchies during the Holy Roman Empire, the most famous known as the Reinheitsgebot.

The purity laws had a complex mix of cronyism and politics, but it appears that Protestants were more interested in lowering the hotness of beer, whose additives multiplied alcohol's unchaste behaviors and chemical dependence.  Hops, it was known, made the drinker sedated, relaxed, and the estrogenic compounds decreased libido or increase erectile dysfunction.  So hops it came to be.

Henbane, the Witch's plant. [USDA Forrest Service]
I've speculated that all of the iconography and linguistic terminology associated with witchcraft has its origins in brewing [here].  Henbane, which seems to have been a common additive to early gruit, was in ancient times associated with the god Apollos Helios* (god of sunlight), brother to Selene Artemis (goddess of the moon).  I've commented on these associations [here] and also the possibility that beaker decoration (corded, acacia, herringbone) corresponds to the principle gruit or bittering ingredient (cannabis, acacia, henbane, etc).

The linguistic etymology for henbane and hemp similarly emerge from PIE bhongo or soma1, generally attributed to the sun god who rides at daybreak.  Because PIE does not appear to distinguish from various psychoactives, it's possible multiple drugs were lumped into a single category.

A possible etymology of English hene-bane or heng-belle may also be found in Old High German as constructed by Siebs as the German god, Henno Wotan, aka the Roman sun-god Mercury or Greek Apollo. (Liberman, 2008)  It's interesting to note that the etymology associates the various sun gods + death (aka hene) for people who were buried facing the sunrise (regardless if it was hyoscyamus niger or not)  But it's also interesting to note that both PtG hene and pech are associated with black resins.

A long list of mood altering additives were originally put in alcoholic beverages, especially beer.  I'm very interested in seeing a more complete chemical analysis from beaker pottery and dental plaque.  I think the decoration of European pottery hints at some of those substances.

La cerveza en la prehistoria reciente: contextos de producción y consumo en la Península Ibérica, Alicia Vaca Alonso, Universidad de Valledoloid, 2014 [Link]


(1) Flattery & Swartz on Soma [here]
*In fact, the Greek word, Herba Apollinaris, is 'the herb of Apollo'


  1. Warning: typo in the title: it is CIEMPOZUELOS, from "cien pozuelos", lit. "a hundred small wells" or more likely "hundred pools". When making a single word, N→M before P or B, at least in Spanish.

    Very interesting the explanation on psychoactive beer. However I'm not so sure that the Catholic Church protected it: I've read that ancient Greek wine was invariably psychoactive (and that's why it was drank diluted in lots of water) and that Christianity in general was decisive in its turning onto a merely alcoholic beverage. I would guess that the same happened with beer.

    Interesting also that there seem to be no signs of wine until much later, probably not before the Iron Age I would guess. While olives are very old in Iberia (since early Neolithic at least), wine seems to have arrived late, right?

    1. Thanks, I fat fingered the title. Corrected.

      One of the beakers had an unspecified 'fruit juice' to some degree. That could be lemon for mead or some fruit wine.
      There were several papers on alcohol from this region, but I only looked at this one.

    2. Lemon? Seems that this fruit is a hybrid original from India. It was known to ancient Jews but, well, wine was also, so it's not likely that it had arrived to Iberia so early.

      I'd bet for cider: apple seems the oldest domesticated fruit and has apparent origins in West Asia. Cider has been a very popular drink in Western Europe since long ago (documented in the Middle Ages as more common than wine in areas like Galicia).

    3. I hadn't considered cider. It'll be interesting to see the story develop

    4. Cider is about the only alcoholic beverage I drink these days: it's refreshing and has a very nice flavor, much like beer but without the bitterness (moderately sweet with a sour touch instead) and has very deep roots as far as oral and written accounts go.

      Anyhow the problem is lack of evidence for apples in the archaeological record. Why exactly? I know the apple seed is small but not smaller than other grains that have been found and sampled.

      So I'm looking at the genetics behind it and, bingo!, I found a study of PLoS Genetics (A. Cornile et al. 2012) that is very interesting. They confirm the origin of M. domestica (cultivated apple) from M. sieversii (Central Asian wild species) but the age estimate they get is extremely old (17 Ka, 95% CI: 6-25 Ka), what makes the apple cultivation or the divergence of its progenitor at least pre-Neolithic or at most very early in the Neolithic.

      M. domestica has strong introgression (depending on cultivar) from the European wild species M. sylvestris, however cider apples show very little sign of such introgression, being this one concentrated in dessert species.

      They also mention that: The Romans introduced sweet apples into Europe at a time at which the Europeans were undoubtedly already making cider from the tannin-rich fruits of the native M. sylvestris [35], [72].

      This is a very interesting note, I believe. The references are from printed books anyhow, so I can't check the details, but the fact that original cider is claimed to have been made not out of "imported" M. domestica (as it is now, with few exceptions) but from the native M. sylvestris is most interesting and suggests the possibility of an independent semi-domestication of the European apple focused on making cider, which could well be related to the Megalithic-Bell Beaker area.

      However they also mention that: There is a long-standing tradition of cider production in some parts of Turkey [35], for instance, which is potentially consistent with an Eastern origin of cider cultivars.

      Another interesting remark is that: Large numbers of apple trees were planted for cider production in France and Spain from the 10th century onwards [48], [52], what might indicate the period when modern cider cultivars (of Asian roots, save exceptions) were introduced and modern cider traditions were established, modified or consolidated.

      I would go for the following working hypothesis: Western Europeans were making cider since BB or older times but this one, out of native M. sylvestris, was too sour (tannins), what may have led to the concept of mixing it with beer, so flavors would compensate each other. Then, in the Middle ages (or maybe even in Roman times but not documented), modern apple variants were introduced en masse altering the the cider-making landscape quite radically but also consolidating the cider tradition.

      Gonna check the supplements to see which cider variants are still in essence M. sylvestris (there are a few, not many).

    5. Table S2 has the detailed data. However the only cider variant which can be described as M. sylvestris is from Russia (antonovka 172670-b). It must be said that France is oversampled and that it'd be interesting to read about cider cultivars in other parts of Western Europe like North Iberia or Ireland and Britain.

    6. I wonder if sour cider and sweet honey / mead were ever made into a mixed drink? (speculatively, Halloween/Haloeine celebrated in Autumn, leaving a trademark halo of dregs in the beaker/calabash?)

    7. Latest fascinating new: melon and grape seeds found in Nuraghic Sardinia (→ So wine is not a Phoenician introduction in the Western Mediterranean but dates at least to Bronze Age.

  2. This was a very interesting post, thanks.

    Do you know any good modern-day gruits one can buy?

    1. Some microbrews offer gruit beers and ales. I've never had one, but I think they are going to be a more mild grocery store versions. I found a website called gruitale that I think sells gruits and herbs for making gruits.