At the end of last week, we looked at the role of water in early civilizations- how it could be manipulated for sanitary purposes, and diverted into shaped landscapes to grow crops, one of the most important factors in these new societies. The other important bit, of course, was its role as a drink. Whilst a common sense approach to sourcing water made catching diseases from it less frequent, significant amounts of waste produced by large settlements and later, cities, invariably ended up in the same waterways they were using. It must have been welcomed then when- apparently by happy accident- one of the longest staples of humanity was invented: beer.
As with anything that has its roots in prehistory, knowing exactly when and how beer was invented is pretty much impossible. It is possible however to have an educated guess or two about the matter. Many types of cereal can ferment by themselves, reacting with yeast in the air. As humans began to grow crops, they would have discovered these fermented grains in their harvests. The earliest beers likely mixed these grains with water, or baked them into bread and submerged that instead to produce beer. It is also likely that beer and other alcoholic drinks were discovered like this and independently developed by many different groups of people across the globe.
Wherever it appeared, it soon became a regular feature of everyday life. The alcohol content in the beer killed off the pathogens that could find their way into water, thus making it safe to drink. Given the more strenuous lifestyles at the time, beer probably also helped the days of working in the field go by a little more easily! As societies became stratified (kings at the top, commoners at the bottom), beer became part of the wages used to pay workers.
Unlike the industrial beer production of modern times,making beer thousands of years ago in Egypt and Sumer was a regular household task. In Sumer at least we know that it was the women who made beer. The patron deity of brewing was also female, a goddess known as Ninkasi. Amongst the many cuneiform tablets recovered from sites in what is now predominantly Iraq, one recorded a poem known as the Hymn to Ninkasi. It is essentially a recipe for making beer, and was probably a way of teaching the method to new generations. The poem shows that the Sumerians made their beer using a twice baked barley bread called bappir. This was ground down and mixed with water, malt and dates or honey which was then fermented. This beer was unfiltered and drunk through straws; images survive showing Sumerians drinking beer from a communal bowl with reed straws.
Beer wasn't the only alcoholic drink ancient peoples came up with- check back next week as we take a look at the history of wine.