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Man's Discovery of Nature's Secret Drink

“Last night lives like an ethereal dream in my head. Aromas of sizzling meats, roasted peppers, and Tarentaise permeated the air, mingling with the lush alcoholic maltiness of Winter Warmers and Barleywine. The scene was eclectic – lights dimmed down, Estefan’s Wepa swirling in my head, feet moving in Latin rhythm – drinking beer with bodies of deep copper. Most gleamed with an edge of mahogany and heads of creamy tan. Every swirl painted my tulip with gauze. My tongue tingled with flavors of melting brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, and licorice. There was warmth in the throat, too … every quaff, awash with spice.

My mood lightened. I remember laughing and moving with each beat. Here I was, a member of Man: The Drinker… or more properly, Vulpes Imbibens, [Fox: the Drinker] … as Patrick McGovern would eagerly call me, enslaved by an ancient ritual that undoubtedly existed 8000 years ago.

McGovern, Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Lab at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, wrote the book, Uncorking the Past, a fascinating look at alcohol in the history of the earth and of mankind. Despite his prestigious title, McGovern is an exuberant imbiber himself, enduring six weeks of toasts, drinking and banquets in China’s Yellow River Basin in the name of research.

Alcohol is a natural byproduct of life, he says, created four billion years ago by single-celled microbes that discovered the cotton-candy of primordial life. In consuming these sugars, simple forms of life created waste products of ethanol and carbon dioxide – just like modern brewers do when they craft today’s ales and lagers.

Sugar fermentation is believed to be the “earliest form of energy production used by life on earth,” writes McGovern. It oozed from tree fruit, as it ripened and split; from flower nectars and evergreen saps; even from honey. All forms of animal life instinctively knew that fermented sugars were a source of high energy, easily accessible, tasty and nourishing.

Charles Darwin believed that “alcohol sells!” … especially to the animal kingdom. Hoping to entice African baboons from their habitat, he set out bowls of beer at night. Baboons aren’t stupid. When free beer is offered, they seize the day!

By morning, the seduced baboons were lying around, passed-out, in a fully drunken stupor; Darwin easily rolled them into his observation lab.

Natural inebriation is common in the animal kingdom. Robins gorge on fermented fruit, while fig wasps engage in alcohol and sex rituals. Even elephants have gluttonized on fermenting fruit and moonshine mash, running amok in boisterous frenzy, while people and concrete buildings fell underfoot.

Humans began consuming alcohol in answer to their bodily needs to stay hydrated and healthy. On average, 60% of the body is water. In untreated water supplies, particularly those surrounding early earth-tribes, harmful parasites and microorganisms could ruin the health of the colony. Man observed that consumption of fermented beverages resulted in better health among those who imbibed.

Alcoholic beverages carried less disease. They hydrated the body. Man:The Drinker was unaware of the benefits of protein, vitamins and nutrients in these fermentations, but felt pretty damned good after drinking them or eating fruits that had been exposed to yeast. The strong aromas of ripening fruit, split and rich with yeast, carried as much as 5% alcohol in the natural state. Aromas were intense and man could not ignore the obvious.

We now know that alcoholic drink is rich with advantages. It stimulates the appetite and drenches our tongue with flavor and our snout with enticing aromas. Sugars in fermented foods are broken into simple chains, making foods cook faster. Alcohol contributes to food preservation, too. In moderation, fermented beverages increase good cholesterol in the body, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.

To the chagrin of modern-day prohibitionists, fermented beverages are believed to have contributed to multiple facets of society’s development. Remember that early man was on constant alert, struggling in a hostile world. Fermented beverages changed his perception. They allowed him to relax.

In the mind-altered state, Man: The Drinker undoubtedly acted in much the same way as modern man. Some became tranquil, while others erupted in belligerent mannerisms or provocative acts. Some created mystical routines. Others joined in music and dance. Ice Age grottoes record figures with horned headdresses and fanciful laughter, a historic compilation of rituals spurred by the principal consumers of these fermented drinks. Fermented beverages may well have cut the path to civilization, and we may well thank early animals and ancient societies for embracing alcohol in its natural state.


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