Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Beer, Pottery, Society and Early European Identity (Turek, 2020) pt. 1

Was alcohol the primary catalyst for to the adoption of ceramics in the Near East Pottery Neolithic?

Turek asks this question.  Could the data could soon point this direction?  Hayden, Canuel and Shanse tell us in their 2012 Natufian paper, that the subject matter of brewing shouldn't be taken as 'mirthful', especially if beer was the gas that fueled the entire cereal-farming Neolithic!

Snip from "Bell Beaker beer drinkers (photograph by J. Turek, courtesy of Museo Arqueologico Madrid)"

Of course grain or any one 'thing' doesn't define the Neolithic.  I like to think of it as a synthesis of specialized economies that all previously existed in the Paleolithic, albeit, independently.  When enough of these Paleolithic specializations began converging the general farm economy was born.  

There's no question as to the centrality of cereal farming to the Neolithic identity.  This is probably because cereal farming is an activity that requires the labor of the whole community.  Cereal farming symbolizes the idea of the Neolithic 'collective' over the rugged independence of the hunter-gatherer.

I'll jump around Turek's paper to highlight a few key points that stood out.  Let's go back to exterior day one.  What was the whole reason Near Easterners began using ceramics in the first place?

With the discovery of pottery and the beginnings of brewing beer, it’s a bit like a question of what occurred first, whether eggs or hen? It is generally believed that the invention of ceramics in the Near East enabled the common brewing of beer (Turek 2005). However, we have to bear in mind that evidence of malting and the oldest brewing dates back to the late Palaeolithic...

...Perhaps it was the production of beer that could have been the impetus for the beginning of Neolithic ceramic production

This makes a lot of sense (especially as a beer drinker).  Essentially Turek builds off an idea by Hayden et al, 2012 that cereal domestication and its dissemination was, in large part, about beer production and social cohesion.  What Turek suggests is that ceramic pottery could have been adopted precisely to make brewing more efficient, more abundant, and brewed with greater precision. 

As is discussed in the Hayden paper, the native geography of cereals are in the northern foothills of the Zargos, not spread across the Levant or wherever.  It also appears they were domesticated where they originated.  So what was the point of domestication?  The Hayden authors believe that mashing grain yields higher caloric returns on labor than threshing and milling.  In other words, the earliest Mesolithic farmers began to scale up production of grains, not to make more baby mush and bread cakes, but because they had the capacity to convert larger and larger volumes of cereal (barley especially) into something immediately useful as sustenance and as a social commodity.

Where do the first ceramics appear in the Near East?  In the foothills of the Northern Zargos.  It is some of those specific sites that have yielded archaeologist, Patrick McGovern, the oldest evidence of alcohol production west of Asia.  Again, it's important to point out a temporal connection between this ancient grain belt and the earliest adoption of pottery in the region.

So what does beer buy you?  

Turek remarks on a theory by (Neustupny, 1998) that beer can buy you the time of fighting men or working men.  Beer is a wage.  It is bait to amass a workforce for field improvements or community projects.  Workers in Uruk and Egypt were paid in beer rations.  This is an important concept because the Neolithic is really about an economy of back-breaking labor.  Digging wells, improving fields, reaping, sowing, building, cutting trees, defending.  It's a time of collective projects that transform landscapes.

If you can imagine a team of guys dragging a limestone block across the desert, what is their daily caloric requirement?  Or digging a well?  Seems a lot of mega-sites of Europe could well have been built with beer-power.

The paper then moves to the beer drinking cultures of Central Europe with specialized drinking sets.  

I'll save that for part 2...

Turek, Jan (2020). Beer, Pottery, Society and Early European Identity. Archaeologies, (), –. doi:10.1007/s11759-020-09406-7 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11759-020-09406-7

Beer is not only a favourite drink for many archaeologists, but is increasingly the subject of their research. Brewing and beer consumption have played a significant role in prehistoric human cultures around the world. Beer was a tasty, nutritious food, a substance affecting the mind, medicine, a religious symbol, as well as a social medium and an accelerator. Alcohol relieved the pain and prevented the spread of infection. Beer was a safe and healthy drink compared to contaminated water. At the time when our ancestors began to domesticate agricultural crops, they commonly produced not only bread but also beer. It is probable that the first ceramic vessels in the Near East were created precisely out of the need to more effectively control the technological process of beer production. Similarly, in the Central European Copper Age, beer production and its growing social significance influenced the emergence of the set Ceramic complex that lasted continuously for more than three millennia. Beer has entered almost all aspects of social life, from everyday consumption and social interactions to initiation ceremonies and major religious celebrations. The study of beer and other fermented beverages sheds light on many aspects of the biocultural development of humans on this planet.


  1. I have just finished reading the immortality key and it changed my view on beer (different beer types perhaps for different occasions). What it actually could have been in pre-history and why those beakers might have been in graves, any thoughts on that research?

    1. I haven't read the book but I am familiar with the arguments. Similar have been made by archaeologists such as Andrew Sherratt and there is not question mind altering substances have played a significant role in spirituality and combat. In fact, I've discussed the role of psychotropic beers (usually henbane) that were used to various cause berserkgang in shock troops of Northern Europe.

      I think you could make an argument that the complexity of religion (the pantheons, philosophies, intensities) were influenced by intense use of alcohol by all members of society. It's certainly a step up from simpler spiritualism of hunter-gatherer societies. I know an individual (an atheist) that recently had a profound religious experience by way of psychoactive substance. I think these experiences are usually the result of inhibition that allow our religious "biology" to come alive.

      As far as the bell beaker contents, they are probably usually beer, but some have milk-based products and probably mead. Some have been shown to include henbane, which is definitely psychoactive and significant if it was in a warrior's grave. Bronze Age gruits probably consistent of all sorts of plants and so there was probably different types of beer for different occasions. Guys going to battle got the stuff that drove them nuts.

    2. Thanks for the reply, personally I am not convinced by alcohol being such a strong cultural changer or social binder to change your entire culture for, psychedelics might have. Spiked beers(and wines)have probably been longer with us than we realize and much deeper in time than we thought, however in the end it revolves around proof. I would recommend to read the book, it nicely shows the interaction between politics, religion, myths and spiked beverages. In my opinion a good attempt to push back proof for psychedelic beer consumption all the way to the hunter-gatherers.

    3. It might interest you to know that before the Reformation, beers were less often bittered with hops and the gruits prior to this to infinity were often thought to cause immoral behaviors. Hops are known to cause a decrease in libido and weaken erections. The laws toward requiring only barely, water, and hops was partially motivated by an almost prohibition sort of mentality. Basically women were sick of men going to Inns, Taverns, Ordinaries which usually doubled as whore-houses. Modern beer is kind of a compromise to all that.

    4. Interesting, I know the hops history, not the libido part though. Spiked beers and wines were indeed linked to fertility and later orgies but and a way to contact the ancestors. The Church has a big part to play in suppressing the truth/revelation that a spike beverage can deliver you directly. They need to stay relevant and be the only connection to god. I am not surprised that after witch-hunting and putting the brightest educated people in a monastery under celibacy law they would also subdue the masses through their popular drinks. Soy-milk comes to mind. It would be interesting to investigate if Bell beaker folk were also merchants of finely tuned spiked beers that get you into contact with ancestors and gods/goddesses. Now i am going to read your part 2.

  2. Beer may have been brewed right across the Neolithic, but appears to reflect little linguistic diversity apart from in Iberia (cerveza, garagardoa), so I would suspect that beer drinking did not become a widespread major cultural phenomenon until Bell Beaker.

    Regarding the Near and Middle East, the Bible shows no sign of alcohol consumption until Noah, and even then it was only wine. I think beer only crops up from the time of Samuel (late 2nd millennium BC).

    1. Alcohols as intoxicants likely goes back to the Paleolithic. Turek mentions this in the paper. Beer itself may have been more popular in Neolithic Central Europe where you find drinking sets in the Michelsburg or Lengyel Cultures, and later Beaker.

      It's also possible that some regions had a different alcoholic beverage that was preferred over beer. Fruit ciders or milk fermentables are one possibility. Also the evidence for wine in Iberia seems pretty old, so it could well have been a cultural boundary in some places.

    2. Yes, some beer was probably drunk across the board, although I find it interesting to look at where it might have become a distinctive iconic beverage. Close linguistic similarity across a huge area suggests this is likely a recent phenomenon within an expansionary culture:
      English beer, German bier, Gaelic beoir, French biere, Italian birra, Russian piva, Albanian birre, Greek byra, Turkish bira, Arabic bayra, Hindi beeyar, Bengali biyara

      Different linguistic roots only seem to show up in the Caucasus and in Western fringe Europe, which might indicate where it first became a 'thing':
      Welsh/Armenian/Basque - cwru/garejur/gargadoa
      Spanish - cerveza
      Georgian - ludi
      Norwegian - ol