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How Beer Affected Our Ancient Social Structure

By Wesley Fenlon

Where would we be without beer? Maybe nowhere, says psychiatrist Jeffrey Kahn.

Parties just aren't the same without alcohol. Everyone knows booze is the great social lubricant. Put 20 people in a room and they may get along well enough, but after a drink or two they'll be more social, more at ease with themselves and their surroundings. This is the basis of bars, cocktail parties--and maybe civilization, according to Jeffrey Kahn. In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, Kahn argues that beer may have been around as far back as 10,000 years ago, and is responsible for society's development as we know it.

"Five core social instincts, I have argued, gave structure and strength to our primeval herds," he writes. "They kept us safely codependent with our fellow clan members, assigned us a rank in the pecking order, made sure we all did our chores, discouraged us from offending others, and removed us from this social coil when we became a drag on shared resources...But then, these same lifesaving social instincts didn’t readily lend themselves to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation...To free up those, we needed something that would suppress the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive."

Photo credit: Flickr user wv via Creative Commons

And that something was, of course, beer. Kahn points to evidence that, counter to common theory, humans first started growing and storing grain to make beer, rather than food. Mexican anthropological work indicates that the ancient grass teosinte was ideal for brewing, but a poor grain for making tortillas or bread; only after farmers domesticated that grass into maize did they primarily use it for food. Similarly, studies of stone age brewing tools in the Mediterranean indicated that beer may have been an important societal component.

Kahn writes that beer may have loosened rigid social structure, encouraging more creative thinking and collaboration. Eventually, it found a place in important social and even governmental decisions: "Beer was thought to be so important in many bygone civilizations that the Code of Urukagina, often cited as the first legal code, even prescribed it as a central unit of payment and penance."

Today no judge would order a guilty farmer to pay his neighbor in kegs of beer, but our modern-day equivalent to sitting around the ancient campfire--a night at the bar or your average house party--still relies on beer to help everyone get along.