Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

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Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

The origins of alcoholic beverages

Alcoholic beverages have been used by virtually all cultures through most of their recorded history. When practices such as these appear to have a near-universal quality, despite the fact that in some cases they may have some apparently negative consequences, we are obliged to consider their potential for positive, culturally adaptive mechanisms. We take the view, quite uncontroversially, that it is unreasonable to suppose that such practices could have survived in such a dominant, pan-historical and pan-cultural manner if they were wholly maladaptive.

Functional approaches

While much of the contemporary anthropology of drinking behaviour focuses on the symbolic and culture-specific aspects of alcoholic rituals, we start with a broader ‘functionalist’ perspective – one which seeks to account for the use of alcohol itself, rather than the richly varied sets of customs and traditions which surround it and which, as we will argue later, effectively limit its potentially harmful effects in the majority of cases. In this sense we find ourselves in the company of writers such as Marvin Harris (1982) who tend to see complex cultural mores as developing from very basic, functional requirements. Thus, prohibitions, such as that which Jews apply to the eating of pork, may have as much to do with the lack of ecological conditions for the satisfactory rearing of pigs as with the need to define a culture in terms of its distinct culinary rules. The two modes of analysis are by no means mutually exclusive or even antagonistic. They simply constitute different levels of explanation, each, in our view, having equal validity.

The earliest brews

The production of an alcoholic beverage requires only the presence of a very simple organic process – that of fermentation, by which sugar is transformed by the action of yeast to produce ethyl alcohol. Sugars, in the form of glucose, fructose, maltose and lactose are obtainable from honey, fruits, sprouting grains and milk, producing in turn, mead, wine, beer and koumish (milchsnapps). The availability of such sugars however, while taken for granted in modern-day Europe, was undoubtedly much lower in pre-historic times. Wild grapes from Vitis sylvestris, for example, in contrast with the highly selected modern varieties of Vitis vinifera, contain too little sugar to ferment naturally. Similarly there is little evidence of the development of grain-sprouting in Europe until about 2000 BC, when the production of mead from wild honey is also thought to have first developed.

Most authorities agree that the conditions for a significant harnessing of the fermentation process first existed only in more southerly regions between the eighth and fourth millennia BC among the very early Bronze Age cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. On the basis of recovered artifacts of this period there is also general consensus that it was beer production, rather than that of wine or other beverages, that provided the earliest source of freely available alcohol. (Rudgely, 1994)

First beers

The first documentary evidence of alcoholic beverages was written in Sumerian around 3200 BC, most certainly concerns beer rather than wine production and employs a specific pictograph for beer itself – an outline of a clay vessel marked with short, diagonal lines. The clarity of such picotographs indicates that beer was, by this time, commonplace and that the brewing process had been developed at a considerably earlier period in Mesopotamia. (Stamp seals with a similar pictograph have been dated back to 4000 BC). The first evidence for wine production in this area has been found in Jemdet Nasr, dating back to about 3,000 BC. It seems clear, however, that although wine was available to the Sumerians, beer remained the most popular drink and featured centrally in temple rituals for nearly 2,000 years (Mandelbaum, 1965).

Wine in Greece

Wine, of course, was later to become a central feature of life among the ancient Greeks and features in all historical accounts of their everyday life. Plato’s Symposium gives us one of the best insights into the role of wine in Greek social and intellectual circles around 350 BC. In this extract the rather hung-over philosophers asssemble in Agathon’s house to continue their discussion or moral and political issues. The first item on the agenda, however, is the amount of drinking that should accompany the debate, given their rather sensitive conditions:

Socrates took his place on the couch, and supped with the rest; and then libations were offered, and after a hymn had been sung to the god, and there had been the usual ceremonies, they were about to commence drinking, when Pausanias said, And now, my friends, how can we drink with least injury to ourselves? I can assure you that I feel severely the effect of yesterday’s potations, and must have time to recover; and I suspect that most of you are in the same predicament, for you were of the party yesterday. Consider then: How can the drinking be made easiest?

I entirely agree, said Aristophanes, that we should, by all means, avoid hard drinking, for I was one of those who were yesterday drowned in drink. I think that you are right, said Eryximachus, the son of Acumenus; but I should still like to hear one other speak: Is Agathon able to drink hard?

I am not equal to it said Agathon.

Then the Eryximachus, the weak heads like myself, Aristodemus, Phaedrus, and others who can never drink, are fortunate in finding the stronger ones are not in a drinking mood. (I do not include Socrates, who is able to drink or to abstain, and will not mind, whichever we do.) Well as none of the company seem disposed to drink much, I may be forgiven for saying, as a physician, that drinking deep is a bad practice, which I never follow, if I can help it, and certainly do not recommend to another, least of all to any one who still feels the effects of yesterday’s carouse.

Despite Pausanias’ lecture on the need for moderation, however, a number of the assembled group proceed to get drunk, and some fall asleep, with the exception of Socrates. As people awake from their wine-induced snoozes, Socrates is still awake and droning on despite the vast quantities that he has consumed during the symposium.

The development of wine as the primary alcoholic beverage in much of Europe from the first century AD has been well documented and need not be reviewed here. The production of distilled spirits in Europe, however, appears to have come much later. Most authorities agree that while such beverages were known, but not generally used, by the Alexandrian Greeks at the beginning of the Christian era, production of such beverages did not take place to any significant extent in Europe until the twelfth century.

Indian spirits

Allchin (1971) suggests that the true home of distillation is the Indian subcontinent, and what is now Pakistan in particular. Archeological evidence now indicates that stills were in regular use in this region in 500 BC and the use of distillation for the production of medicines, rather than beverage alcohol, is undoubtedly much older. The early Indian production of distilled spirits was probably a radical technological development from the fermentation process. There is considerable documentary evidence of the fermentation of sugar cane juice, grapes and rice dating back to 1200 BC. They also consumed a drink known as soma. This has been convincingly demonstrated by Wasson (1969) to have been made from the Fly-Agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, and would, therefore have had deeply intoxicating properties. What Allchin and others writing on the subject seem to miss, however, is that references to soma date back to even earlier times. The Hindu Laws of Manu, for example, which was written in about 1500 BC, contains far more references to soma than does the much later, and much better known, Bhagavad Gita.

The first recipe The Sumerian tablets noted earlier contain the world’s first recorded recipe – not for bread or other ‘staples’ of life – but for an alcoholic beverage. The production of beer is detailed, as we would expect, with reference to Mesopotamian myths. In this case the story is of Enki, the third-ranked God of the Sumerian pantheon who prepares a feast for his father, Enhil. A second recipe, from a slightly later period, is in the form of a prayer to Ninkasi, the goddess of beer. Her name translates literally as "the lady who fills the Mouth". We also find documentary evidence from this period of beer rations distributed to workers in the Sumerian palaces – each receiving about a litre per day. Similarly recovered artifacts such as goblets and drinking straws, through which the unfiltered beer was drunk, testify to the commonplace nature of alcoholic beverage at this time. As Katz and Voigt conclude: In general, we can say that beer was an important food that was integrated into the mythology, religion and economy of the Sumerians.

These, and other, accounts from archeologists and scholars of ancient history are fascinating in themselves and give insights into the role of alcohol and drinking traditions which are familiar to us in twentieth century societies. More importantly, however, they also raise issues to do with the original purpose of grain-growing itself among the Neolithic predecessors of the Sumerians. Was grain grown primarily for making bread, with beer being simply a by-product, or was the production of an alcoholic beverage the main driving force behind this major shift towards stable agriculture, and hence, to the development of what we take to be civilization? If it was, indeed, the production of beer that shaped this dramatic shift, or even if it rapidly became an additional, powerful motive, we can begin to understand why the consumption of alcohol, in clearly defined social contexts, quickly became so deeply entrenched not only in cultures of what is now the Near East, but almost everywhere else in the world as well.

Grain for bread or grain for beer?

This was an issue raised over 100 years ago by the archaeologist, James Death (1877). I adduce reasons to show that the manufacture of beer was the earliest art of primitive man; an art exceeding in antiquity that of the potter or of the wine maker, and certainly that of the baker. Somewhat later, the same issue was revived by the botanist Jonathan Sauer (1953) and subsequently explored in a symposium chaired by the anthropologist, Robert Braidwood: It is generally assumed that the appearance of domesticated cereals in the Near East was intimately linked with the use of these grains for the preparation of flour for bread-making. … Sauer wonders whether the earliest utilization of the domesticated cereals may have been for beer rather than bread. The question would thus appear to be: Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread making? One would assume that the utilization of wild cereals (along with edible roots and berries) as a source of collected food would have been in existence for millennia before their domestication (in a meaningful sense) took place. Was the subsequent impetus to this domestication bread or beer?

It is unlikely that there will ever be a definitive answer to Sauer’s query. There has been some resistance to the idea from scholars with knowledge and interest in the subject, but Braidwood himself says "I am in no way unattracted to the idea … that thirst rather than hunger may have been the stimulus behind the origin of small grain agriculture." While Halbaek sticks to the more conventional line that bread-making preceded brewing, Mangelsdorf argues the opposite, saying that the types of grain found in many archeological sites were quite unsuited for bread-making without extremely tiresome de-husking and preparation. Such grains, including barley were, however, eminently suitable for brewing, and remain so today. Mangelsdorf, however, having challenged the grain-for-bread hypothesis, is forced to ask a very obvious question: "Did these Neolithic farmers forego the extraordinary food values of the cereals in favour of alcohol, for which they had no physical need? Are we to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?"

Such incredulity concerning the grain-for-beer hypothesis is understandable if we think in terms of the contrast between modern-day ales and breads. In Neolithic times, however, beer and bread were both somewhat different. The earliest beer appears to have take the form of a mildly alcoholic, thick brew containing ungerminated grains and small amounts of natural sugars. In this form it would have been highly nutritious. It would have involved much less technology and effort than that needed for baking bread and would certainly have been more palatable than a porridge-like gruel made from unfermented grains. From this early brew the step towards the production of the kind of beer favoured by the Sumerians would have involved only the germination of grains prior to the fermentation process – yielding an even more palatable, but still nutritious beverage. Bread production would have been a quite separate, but also beneficial, later development. Evidence for the perceived nutritional value of beer in Sumerian and Egyptian cultures is abundant. Lutz (1922), for example, reports a clay inscription which urges every good mother to supply her schoolboy sons with two jars of beer in addition to three small loaves of bread in order to ensure their healthy development. In considering these issues we have to remember that the ecological conditions prevailing in Neolithic times were generally very advantageous. The ratio of population to available resources was relatively low and there was little in the way of impetus to maximise the efficiency of food gathering and preparation techniques (Young et al, 1983). It is also the case that prior to about 5000 BC wild grains and pulses constituted only a very small component of the diet – estimated from carbonized plant remains at no more the 4%. Since there was no reliance on such foods for survival it is unlikely, therefore, that the drive towards domestication of wild cereals was driven by the need for nutritional gain alone. Such a gain would, in any case, have been initially quite small. Katz and Voigt (1986) argue that there must have been another reason:

Suppose that the consumption of a food produced an altered state of awareness or consciousness that was noticeable, but that did not have serious toxic side-effects such as motor impairment. Now suppose that this food also had a second, imperceptible effect, a substantial improvement in nutritional value over unprocessed cereal grains. This is exactly what happens when barley and wheat are fermented into beer.

The argument, then, is that the attractions of mild inebriation provided the true motive for developments which, coincidentally, led to a selective advantage among beer drinking groups and their immediate descendants. It did not lead to the under-nourished, drunken hordes envisaged by Mangelsdorf. Instead, improved survival prospects, encouraged increased settlement and, ultimately, paved the way for the development of genuine culture. If human culture originated in such adaptive circumstances, the central role played by alcoholic beverages in human societies during the following 6,000 years becomes readily explicable.

The drive for intoxication

The Katz and Voigt thesis (developed later by Katz and Maytag, 1991) is, of course, an extreme one which is supported mainly by speculation and inferences drawn from sometimes ambiguous archeological finds. Whatever the merits of their line of argument, however, it is clear that even if grains were grown primarily for making gruel, and later for bread, fermentations occurred which established beer drinking as one of the earliest cultural behaviours. The alcoholic brews, whether the result of intention or accident, were not poured away. They were drunk because, we must assume, they were enjoyable. It is also clear that even if the nutritional benefits of the early beers have been overstated, they clearly did not constitute a bio-cultural disadvantage. The suggestion that the true motive for early beer drinking was the achievement of mild intoxication rather than the satisfaction of hunger is also persuasive. Seeking after altered states of consciousness is one of the few genuinely universal features of the human condition. As Rudgley (1994) notes:

"The universal need for liberation from the restrictions of mundane existence is satisfied by experiencing altered states of consciousness. That we dream every night – whether we remember it or not – shows that we have a natural predisposition to these altered states, but people also pursue them in more active ways. Some follow the paths of prayer or meditation in their quest for spiritual insight, whilst others are transported to the higher planes by way of ecstasies induced by art, music, sexual passion or intoxicating substances."

In all human cultures, without exception, routine use is made of intoxicating substances, the most commonly used being alcohol. This primitive, human desire, we must assume, was as present among the Neolithic tribes as it has been ever since. There is quite clear evidence, for example, of the cultivation of opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) among European Neoliths in areas which are now Germany, Switzerland and Italy. It is hard to imagine that such domestication and the processing of the poppy capsules, rather than just the seeds, had any purpose other than the provision of readily available consciousness-altering substances. Evidence for the domestication of hemp (Cannabis sativa) and its use not only as a fibre but also for smoking in ‘pipe cups’ in this period is also persuasive. A number of scholars have also indicated the strong probability that other intoxicating plants such as the Fly-Agaric (Amanita muscaria) were in use in even earlier periods as far back as 10,000 BC – just after the retreat of the glaciers of the Ice Age.

Documentary evidence for the use of psychotropic substances other than alcohol in Eastern European areas is also extensive. One of the first accounts of such use comes from the Greek traveller and historian, Herodotus. Although not always the most reliable of reporters, he provides in his History observations on the drinking styles of various cultures at the extremeties of the Greek Empire in the period 484-425 BC and also notes various societies in which other intoxicating substancess are used. Among these he highlights the Massagetae, a Scythian people living to the east of the Araxes river:

Besides the trees whose fruit they gather [for food] they also have a tree which bears the strangest produce. When they are met together in companies they throw some of it on the fire round which they are sitting, and presently, by the mere smell of the fumes which it gives out in burning, they grow drunk, as the Greeks do with wine. More of the fruit is then thrown on the fire and, their drunkenness increasing, they often jump up and begin to dance and sing.

In another reference to the Scythians, Herodotus explicitly notes to the use of cannabis:

They take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed on the hot stones. At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour bath one could find in Greece. The Scythians enjoy it so much they howl with pleasure.

Vapour baths or tents, very similar to those used by the Scythians, have been found in archeological explorations in Pazyryk, Siberia and have been observed in use among a number of North American Indian tribes.

The existence of these naturally intoxicating and, in some cases, psychotropic plants may explain the the apparent absence of alcohol production in some traditional cultures. The Inuit of Alaska, for example, who were exposed to alcohol for the first time by the early colonialists, were known to chew the ashes of fungi growing on birch trees for mildly stimulating purposes. North American Indians similarly sought after the Oshtimisk Wajashkwedo, or red-top mushroom which was associated with immortality and communication between souls. Other types of psychotropic mushrooms have been used by quite different cultures in Mesoamerica. The Mayan people also developed a taste for the juice of the Bufo marinus toad while the Australian Aborigines were content to smoke Pituri, derived from the tips of a shrub which produces a distinct sense of excitement and, in some cases, mild hallucination.

The ‘dangers’ of alcohol

Early Man’s desire to achieve altered states of consciousness through the use of intoxicants would have presented a number of dangers within developing cultures. Alcohol, in the form of the early beers, would have presented the lowest risks because of their relatively low strength and the ability of drinkers to gauge the amount ingested quite accurately. Such beverages also lent themselves most readily to social and group activity rather than solitary consumption. Nonetheless, unrestricted consumption would have presented debilitating states of consciousness which would have outweighed the individual and social benefits, and even the nutritional gains, that beer provided.

It is clearly for this reason that we find early evidence of the integration of alcohol consumption into the core systems of myths and ritual practices within emergent cultures. Such cultural traditions and rules both prescribed the use of alcohol for social and ceremonial functions and proscribed continuous or excessive inebriation. The potential for social disorder arising from the production and consumption of potentially ‘risky’ beverages, and was thus minimized while enabling positive patterns of cultural interaction.

Early controls on alcohol

One of the earliest codes of alcohol control is that of Hammurabi, dating back to about 1,720 BC, although less formal strictures on excessive drinking were in evidence much earlier. The Hammurabic code, inscribed on a basalt stela tablet, placed many obligations on tavern-keepers, who were mainly female, and specified prices and quality standards for beer and even the credit terms for purchase that could be applied. Overcharging for beverages was punishable by drowning and the code also included apparently effective strategies to curb drink-related disorder, placing obligations on the tavern-keepers to exclude criminals from their premises on pain of execution by burning. As Mandelbaum (1965) notes:

"Though alcoholic drink in Sumer was used in worship and served as a means of consolidating society, in certain contexts its use was potentially antisocial and immoral, so the state tried to eliminate the disruptive side effects of alcohol."

Early Egyptian writings also include a number of prohibitions on excessive drinking, although it was social pressure, rather than the law, which was brought to bear on those who used alcohol in inappropriate ways. Lutz (1922) provides us with a nice example of this in the form of a letter written by a teacher to his errant pupil. The teacher complains that the boy is wandering around the taverns instead of devoting himself to his studies. He smells constantly of beer and acts like a "broken oar that can no longer steer". The teacher lectures him on the potential evils of alcohol and urges him to drink less and return to the serious business of learning.

The foundations of contemporary drinking

From these distant origins, via the Sumerians and later the Europeans, stem (if only indirectly) our modern patterns of alcohol use. Developing cultures elsewhere in the world, where archeological and documentary evidence are unfortunately much less available, appear to have followed a similar pattern of social evolution. We cannot escape the conclusion that drinking in the twentieth century meets substantially similar individual, collective and cultural needs to those experienced by the Neolithic people. Equally, we are obliged to recognize the continuing risks presented by the universal need to transcend everyday life through the use of intoxicants. It is to these issues in the modern context that we now turn our attention. To what extent do we find evidence of the continuing cultural benefits of drinking? How do contemporary societies, whether they be defined as ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’, develop cultural ‘solutions’ to the potential dangers of excessive or unbridled consumption of alcohol?