Archaeology Buzz

This week, gentle reader(s), we will do a brief review of drinkin’ before there was drivin’About a year ago, a new study was published about the first taste of wine – probably inspired by drunk birds chompin on fermented berries, our Paleolithic ancestors might have drank old grape juice out of animal skins or wooden bowls.U Penn professor McGovern expounds on the magical process of viniculture, and is currently scouring eastern Turkey for the origins of grape domestication (Tigris River, fertile crescent… ring any bells?) Using DNA analysis of wild grapes against modern cultivated grapes, they hope to pinpoint where the split occured, and what it might look like.He is the author of Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2003 Princeton University Press). The book is an account of the scientist’s long career combining analytical chemistry and biochemistry with archaeology—he began studying purple dye but then moved towards stained wine vessels, pushing back the dates to at least 5,000 years ago.If you want to know more – much, much more – this is an excellent resource for the history of wine (Good Rs, this is for you).Moving on to beer, the Ancient Africans used beer for medicinal purposes (go National Geographic). Using osteological remains, George Armelagos of Emory University studies Nubians (Nubia being an ancient kingdom south of ancient Egypt along the Nile River) from A.D. 350 and 550. The bones, the researchers say, contain traces of the antibiotic tetracycline (not to be confused with orthotricycline, a modern birth control pill). Today tetracycline is used to treat ailments ranging from acne flare-ups (which birth control is reputed to control) to urinary-tract infections. This antibiotic only came into commercial use half a century ago. Apparently the Nubians were ahead of their time.So it turns out that the beer they were making was the culprit. To get techinical:

The brew was made from grain contaminated with the bacteria streptomycedes, which produces tetracycline. The ancient Nubians, according to Armelagos, stored their grain in mud bins. A soil bacteria, streptomycedes is ubiquitous in arid climates like Sudan’s. “We looked at how the grain was used then and came across a recipe for beer,” Armelagos said. The Nubians would make dough with the grain, bake it briefly at a hot temperature, and then use it to make beer. 

Ever seen this poster? Maybe this has ancient Nubian origins too – even more literally. Cure the acne plus inebriate the predator/pray relationship? Does it get get any better than this? Probably.

“We’re not talking about Heineken or Bud Light. This was a thick gruel, sort of a sour cereal,” [Armelagos] said. …The Nubians would drink the gruel and probably allowed their children to eat what was left at the bottom of the vat. 

That’s right, traces were found in the bones of infants as young as 24 months. Yikes. At least they were cultured.In another NG article, Michael Jackson (not the child molester although that would make an even more bizarre transition) details how Beer Brewing Paralleled the Rise of Civilization.

“There is a perfectly respectable academic theory that civilization began with beer,” he noted. Some people contend that beer may have been the staple ofmankind’s diet even before bread was invented. 

During the Neolithic Revolution, hunters and gatherers began settling down and farming their land —the beginning of civilization. We can all point and gasp as the Fertile Crescent is once again indicated as the birthplace of such cultivation.

“The first thing they did with that grain,” he added, “was make it into beer. We don’t know whether they were trying to make beer, or just trying to find a wayto make grain edible.” 

Some people argue that beer lead to civilization (if f**king ugly people is civilized, that is…) Today, at least 971 different varieties of beer exist, including some wackos who enjoy making the original recipies of the ancient Sumarians and the Chinese. Thick gruel? I’ll pass.That’s right, the Chinese were brewing beer 9000 years ago. “We called it a mixed beverage, because we’re not sure where it fits in,” McGovern of UPenn (again!) said… “It wasn’t a beer, it wasn’t a mead, and it wasn’t a wine or a cider. It was somewhere between all of them, in this gray area,” he said.Sam Calagione, a Delaware brewer, used a recipe that included rice, honey, and grape and hawthorn fruits. He got the formula from archaeologists who derived it from the residues of pottery jars found in the late Stone Age village of Jiahu in northern China. Using what were understood to be ancient techniques (allowing the temperate climate to naturally ferment the juice and honey, using intense heat much like a pot put directly into the fire) he re-created this concoction. The residues are the earliest direct evidence of brewed beverages in ancient China.In earlier research McGovern found evidence of a similar alcoholic beverage in a 2,700-year-old royal tomb in Turkey—perhaps that of King Midas. He then collaborated with Calagione to re-create the drink. The result was Midas Touch Golden Elixir, although the catchy television jingle was already taken by someone else.In conclusion, you’re not the first nor the last to spend all night puking. So revel in it – you’re reenacting history.

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