Drunk (and High) on Civilization

The Feasting Theory has gotten a new boost.

In brief, the argument is this: in complex foraging societies with significant food and material surpluses, social prestige was acquired through a consistent practice of one-upmanship by putting on ever-larger feasts, and that such competitive feasts were the impetus for the more intensive cultivation of desirable plants and animals, which eventually led to full domestication.

Feasts were thrown for a variety of reasons, but one end result was the emergence of elites and endogamous (closed) social classes. As this article states:

The practice of feasting—the consumption of large communal meals within a socially constructed setting—has attracted widespread attention as a result of its role in affecting social and ideological change…feasts have been shown to play essential roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships. Feasts are heavily imbued with meaning and are often associated with ritual behavior and socially important events such as burials.

Early evidence for feasting at a burial cave in Israel (PNAS)

The article cited above goes on to document evidence for feasting preceding the Neolithic (farming) Revolution in the Near East:

…community members coalesced at Hilazon [Tachtit cave, a Late Epipaleolithic (12,000 calibrated years B.P.) burial site in Israel] to engage in special rituals to commemorate the burial of the dead and … feasts were central elements in these important events … clear evidence for feasting on wild cattle and tortoises … includes unusually high densities of butchered tortoise and wild cattle remains in two structures, the unique location of the feasting activity in a burial cave, and the manufacture of two structures for burial and related feasting activities.

Feasts likely served important roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships, the integration of communities, and the mitigation of … stress [from increased group size]. These and other social changes in the Natufian period mark significant changes in human social complexity that continued into the Neolithic period. Together, social and economic change signal the very beginning of the agricultural transition.

Intensive cultivation of cereal crops for feasts appears to have long preceded domestication. So, early cultivation was not “forced” upon us to feed a growing population, but rather seems to have been largely voluntary, at least in the beginning.

Long before [the Neolithic] there are signs of human habitation in the [Fertile Crescent] by Acheulian, Neanderthal and Natufian people, indicated by the presence of many grinding slabs, hand stones, mortars and sickle blades…. analysis of the micro-wear on flint sickle blades [indicated that]…cereals were being cultivated by about 12,000 BP, but were probably harvested before they were ripe and may not have been domesticated, i.e…cultivation preceded domestication. The great variety of plant remains at Abu Hureyra in Syria, dated to 11,500-10,100 BP, has provided no evidence of cereal domestication, despite the all-year round occupance of the site. In this instance, at least, a sedentary life style preceded plant domestication.

Crop Evolution, Adaptation and Yield (Google Books)

Work Feasts were also the main means of recruiting large-scale labor in pre-market economies. As Michael Dietler states, “[A] work feast is… a particular form of the “empowering feast” mode of commensal politics in which commensal hospitality is used to orchestrate voluntary collective labor. That is, the work feast is an event in which a group of people are called together to work on a specific project for a day (or more) and, in return, are treated to food and drink, after which the host owns the proceeds of the day’s labor.” (Feasts, p. 241)

Note that this turns previous history books on their head:

– Previous histories argued that cereal domestication is what allowed sedentism. Wrong. Sedentism either preceded, or was encouraged by, cultivation in complex foraging societies long before domestication.

– Previous histories had us all living in small, isolated tribal communities with little to no contact with outsiders. Wrong. Complex, long-distance relationships were sustained by feasting and trade even before the Neolithic Revolution, especially among elites. Some of these stone-age cultures appear to have united villages over very large geographical areas even before the much later urban revolution in Southern Mesopotamia.

– Previous histories had elites first emerging with the large, complex civilizations of the Near East and the Levant. Wrong. It appears that specialized elites long preceded these first civilizations, although they may have been more akin to “big men”, paramount chiefs and shamans rather than “divine kings.” Such positions may not have been hereditary at first, but later became associated with certain preferred lineages over time.

– Previous histories claimed the first monumental architecture were the temples and ziggurats of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and these coincided roughly with both domestication and urbanization. Wrong. Temples and other ceremonial complexes long predating domestication have been uncovered in Anatolia (Turkey) such as Göbekli Tepe, Çayönü Tepesi, and Nevali Çori. Furthermore, large stone monoliths, cromlechs, dolmens, cairns, and tumuli are found all over the world thousands of years before the first alluvial civilizations. These range from Egypt (Nabta Playa) to Malta (Ġgantija), to Britain (Stonehenge) and even East Asia in Korea (Gochang & Hwasun) and Indonesia (Gunung Padang). Many of these sites have been definitively shown to be associated with large-scale feasting events over very large areas.

In particular, the foodstuffs which would have been most cultivated were those with psychotropic properties—i.e. those designed to “party”—meaning things like grains suitable for brewing alcohol, and various other psychotropic drugs. In other words, drug use and civilization are intrinsically linked. Addictive substances may have been what first lured us away from “the original affluent society” of egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands living within earth’s limits, and bound us with the yoke of domestication, hard,  labor, disease, malnutrition, and oppressive, hierarchical social dominance structures which continue to the present day. Brian Hayden et. al. write:

Partly through the agency of psychoactive substances, feasts in traditional societies are, and presumably were, used as arenas for inculcating ideologies, creating cohesion and social differentiation within a social group, and introducing new foods and technologies. Feasts require the production and storage ahead of time of large quantities of food and drink, and successful organizers can and do obtain political power and reproductive success. The social competition model proposes that a *wealth* rather than a dearth of resources enabled people to engage in high risk production activities such as cultivation and domestication. (emphasis in original)

Pharmacological Influences on the Neolithic Transition (Journal of Ethnobiology PDF)

Indeed, history has shown that human societies are fundamentally conservative in their outlook, and are only willing to tolerate novel social arrangements and endure disruptive social change in conditions of relative abundance, and not under conditions of scarcity and want (as the last few centuries have demonstrated).

Such feasting would have also inculcated a future-oriented mentality among elites quite different from that of simple (immediate-return) foragers. Those more able to engage in such future-oriented behaviors probably gained significant advantages in status, power, and reproductive fitness. Over thousands of years, this would have added up to significant social change. But it may have all started with beer:

Beer has plenty to recommend it over bread. First, and most obviously, it is pleasant to drink. “Beer had all the same nutrients as bread, and it had one additional advantage,” argues Solomon H. Katz, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Namely, it gave early humans the same pleasant buzz it gives us.

Patrick E. McGovern, the director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania, goes even further.

Beer, he says, was more nutritious than bread. It contains “more B vitamins and [more of the] essential amino acid lysine,” McGovern writes in his book, Uncorking the Past: the Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. It was also safer to drink than water, because the fermentation process killed pathogenic microorganisms. “With a four to five percent alcohol content, beer is a potent mind-altering and medicinal substance,” McGovern says, adding that ancient brewers acted as medicine men.

Beer also played an important societal role in bonding early communities together. It was popular at religious ceremonies, communal events, and celebrations. Brian Hayden, an archaeology professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, believes that communal feasting fostered social bonding—and lots of beer was consumed during those feasts.

Moreover, beer was thought to be a necessary component in the afterlife—throughout the Middle East, the dead were buried with jugs of frothy refreshments. It was even used as currency—in Egypt, the pyramid workers were paid in beer.

How did man originally discover beer? McGovern and Katz theorize that man first learned to make some sort of gruel from barley. Then, natural yeast, likely supplied by insects, would have fermented the gruel, leading to a primitive form of a beer. Beer was actually easier to make than bread. Once early humans sipped these ancient suds—whether barley, corn, or rice-based—they began cultivating grain, becoming sedentary creatures. “All of these grains could have jump-started civilization as we know it because you really have to stick around the whole year to take care of your plants,” McGovern says…

“The question is really a no-brainer,” McGovern writes. “If you had to choose today, which would it be: bread or beer?”

Beer Domesticated Man (Nautilus)

While large-scale irrigation works have long been implicated in the emergence of the first complex societies, the role of grain alcohol and other psychotropic substances has often been overlooked. But new evidence from China reinforces the notion that beer brewing played a crucial role in the formation of that ancient civilization as well. Specifically, they found that people there came up with two different ways to brew beer!

Was it the lure of beer that encouraged prehistoric humans to begin farming? Archaeological evidence from China suggests it might have been as the region’s first farmers had worked out how to turn millet and other cereals into alcoholic drinks in two distinct ways, hinting at how important alcohol was at the time.

Li Liu at Stanford University and her colleagues analysed the residues left on 8000- to 7000-year-old pottery sherds unearthed at two early farming sites in north China. At both sites, some of the residues contained cereal starch granules with signs of physical damage similar to that caused by fermentation.

At the site of Lingkou, tiny mineral particles from plants – phytoliths – in the residues suggest the brewers simply let the grains sprout, which frees up the sugars. But at the site of Guantaoyuan, 300 kilometres to the west, the mix of phytoliths and fungi suggests an alternative approach. Here, the archaeologists say the brewers triggered the breakdown of starches by using a ‘fermentation starter’ known as qū, which is made from grains that have been allowed to mould. Qū is still used today to produce cereal wines and spirits.

However, [Patrick] McGovern would like to see stronger evidence that the brewers at Guantaoyuan really were using qū. In 2004, he and his colleagues described even earlier evidence of fermented drinks in the region, at a 9000-year-old site in central China. The brewers there used honey and fruit as well as rice. It’s an important distinction, says McGovern. Not only are honey and fruit rich in fermentable sugars, they also naturally carry the yeasts that perform fermentation – which cereals do not. If they used honey and fruit as well as cereals, early brewers at Guantaoyuan would not have needed to use qū to get fermentation started.

But there is agreement that the new study emphasises the important of alcoholic drinks in early farming cultures. Liu suspects the spread of domesticated rice might have been encouraged in part because of its use in such drinks. “Alcohol would be used in feasting which helps some individuals to gain high social status and to form alliances,” she says.

McGovern thinks alcoholic drinks might even have helped encourage humans to adopt farming. The large quantities of grain produced by farming could be stored and turned into beer or bread all year round. Beer might have been seen as the more desirable product. Bread doesn’t have the mind-altering effect of alcohol, which I think is so important for social and religious reasons,” he says.

Early farmers liked alcohol so much they invented two ways to brew it (New Scientist)

And that’ not the only psychotropic drug that appears to have been cultivated in China. Recently, archaeologists have discovered the earliest use of cannabis, which they suspect was also used in religious ceremonies (no doubt administered by HIGH priests!):

Archaeologists…found evidence of burned cannabis with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (the cannabis ingredient responsible for the high) on 10 wooden incense burners, known as braziers; the burners were found alongside eight human burials at an ancient site known as Jirzankal Cemetery (also called Quman Cemetery) on the Pamir Plateau of western China.

The burners all carried a mystery residue, which a chemical test soon revealed to be cannabis…

Researchers have known for decades that ancient people in eastern China cultivated cannabis as long ago as 3500 B.C. But this cannabis was grown as an oil-seed and fiber crop, and so it had low psychoactive properties. In other words, the ancient people harvesting cannabis for these purposes probably weren’t smoking or ingesting it for its high.

The cannabis residues found in the braziers, however, tell another story. It’s likely that ancient people purposefully selected cannabis plants with high THC levels and then smoked them as part of a ritual or religious activity associated with these burials, “perhaps, for example, aimed at communicating with the divine or the deceased,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Of note, the burials are more in line with the ancient mortuary practices from ancient Central Asia, including the modern-day countries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, than they are from China, the researchers said.

The study is the latest to look at cannabis’s origins and historic uses. In May, another group of researchers posited that the cannabis plant likely originated high on the Tibetan Plateau, according to an analysis of fossil pollen. The new finding “provides yet another piece in the biomolecular archaeological puzzle of the ‘abiding mystery of Central Asia’ and its impact on human cultural and biological development through the millennia,” Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science. “Much more remains to be learned.”

People Smoked Pot to Get High at Least 2,500 Years Ago (Live Science)

Chinese tombs yield earliest evidence of cannabis use (BBC)

The widespread use of psychoactive substances didn’t end with the Neolithic, but only intensified, and is intertwined with the very history of complex civilizations. For example, the importation of coffee and tea had a major impact on European history. Rather than beer, coffee and tea could provide a source of clean, filtered water, but with stimulative instead of depressant effects. “Until coffee consolidated its hold in the 18th century, beer soup was the breakfast liquid of choice.” (New York Times) Coffee houses became centers of the new, merchant-oriented economy that reshaped Europe in the Early Modern Period. Insurance companies such as Lloyd’s of London were born in coffeehouses. The French Revolution was fomented in coffeehouses by overcaffinated intellectuals, and Americans dumped tea into Boston harbor. Later, Britain would get an entire country hooked on drugs to redress their trade balance, and the United States would use drug laws to imprison millions of its own citizens.

How Coffee Influenced The Course Of History (NPR)

As Hayden et. al. conclude, surveying the long record of psychoactive drugs in human history:

The use of [Psychoactive Substances] precedes agriculture and was widespread in forager societies. Many PAS were exploited for medicinal purposes or were mild stimulants, including tobacco in America and Australia, and khat and betel in Africa and Asia (all these plants were eventually cultivated by some groups). Much forager PAS use focused on hallucinogens for ritual purposes, such as to induce shamanic trances and communicate with the spirit world. Most hallucinogens are debilitating in high doses, and their powerful effects deter widespread consumption, restricting use largely to infrequent rituals by a few specialists. With domestication, however, the focus shifted from perception-altering to mood-altering, euphoric, or stimulating PAS. Domestication enabled the production of large and reliable quantities of such PAS. In the primary Neolithic sites, West and East Asian farmers produced alcohol, while American farmers produced alcohol, coca, tobacco, and cacao. European and Asian farmers added opium and cannabis to the Levantine crop complex; in Southern India farmers produced grains for alcohol; in Africa, coffee and kola were major trade items…

Mood-altering PAS stimulate brain reward pathways. They are highly prized and sought for effects such as amicability, reduction of stress, and feelings of liberation. They are widely used in many cultures, and have been major trade goods throughout history and prehistory. Psychoactive substances were not the only products of early cultivators, but they were typically the most highly valued and were given religious and social significance.

Even today, the majority of adult humans regularly use PAS derived from early domesticates including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, and sugars. Ancient users may not have perceived these as drugs in the modern sense but simply as desirable, good tasting, good feeling foods. In early modern times, PAS played a facilitating role in global colonization, used first to entice indigenous peoples into labor arrangements, and then to reward individuals for labor and production outputs. The effects of PAS upon mood and motivation are critical: “Habitual users tend to develop psychological or physiological dependency on them and, in turn, on the trader or merchant who provides them…

BONUS: It appears that Celtic people in what is today eastern France were importing food, drink and pottery for feasting from the Mediterranean: Early Celts in Burgundy appropriated Mediterranean products and feasting practices (Science Daily). Incidentally, McGovern was an advisor to Dogfish Head Brewing Company for their beer Midas Touch, which is allegedly “made with ingredients found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas.”

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