National Geographic Magazine: On the History and Social Role of Alcohol

The cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s [external link] February issue is an interesting culture-historical excursus on the social and ritual role of alcohol from early cultures to modern drinking habits, the technical processes of producing alcoholic beverages, and the challenges to actually track down and verify these in the archaeological record.

Titled “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze” [external link], the text by author Andrew Curry (with photos by Brian Finke) follows the work of Martin Zarnkow for instance, a scientist at TUZ Munich’s Weihenstephan research center for brewing and food-grade. We also had the pleasure to work together with him when he was analysing a couple of samples coming from large stationary stone vessels at Göbekli Tepe. While still preliminary and inconclusive, these analyses initially hinted at the likely brewing – and consumption – of beer-like beverages in the context of large gatherings which seem to have taken place at Neolithic Göbekli Tepe (read more about this observation here). National Geographic’s article also features a short insight into this part of our research and puts it into a quite fascinating (pre-)historical context.

Figure 1

Large limestone vessels at Göbekli Tepe which might have been used for the production of early alcoholic beverages based on cereals. (Photos: N. Becker, DAI)

Antiquity Slam: “Stone Age After-Work-Parties”

Science lectures are a boring matter, right? Presenting research results is an as serious as dry thing, isn’t it? Or, wait – is it really? Inspired by the great success of the concept of Poetry Slams where poets read and recite their original creations, a couple of Science Slam events were initiated over the last years – prompting scientists to present their research to a wider audience in an -anything-but-boring way. Science communication 2.0, showing a broader audience how fascinating research actually can be and encouraging scientists to leave the ivory tower trying new ways of presenting research results.

Alas, often focussing on natural sciences, humanities and in particular archaeology and ancient studies seemed a bit underrepresented in past Science Slams, so the Berliner Antike Kolleg [external link] together with the Excellence Cluster TOPOI [external link] thought it was about time for something new – an Antiquity Slam [external link].

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November 2nd 2016 six archaeologists, art historians, philosphers, and philologists are presenting current research questions and insights in short 10-minute-niblets right there at Berlin’s Neues Museum.

Topics cover a chronological range from first sedentary societies to Roman Emperors and the Renaissance. The Göbekli Tepe research project is glad to shed a light on the earlier leg of this time-frame with a contribution by Jens Notroff on “Stone Age after-work parties”. The event will be held in German.

Out for a beer at the dawn of agriculture

Ever since the so called Braidwood Symposium in 1953 (Braidwood et al. 1953), there has been a debate as to whether beer – and not bread – was the first product made from domesticated crops (e.g. Katz and Voigt 1986). Based on the discovery of grain at the site of Qalat Jarmo, and at the suggestion of the archaeo-botanist Sauer, Braidwood inquired whether or not the discovery of fermentation could have been the spark that triggered the targeted selection, and ultimately domestication, of certain crops. Fermented grain, which sees its starch transformed into sugars, is well known for its beneficial properties, including an increase in nutritional value, also making it easier to digest. Indeed, the participants at the aforementioned symposium eventually came to the consensus that early grain crops would have been far better suited to the production of gruel or beer than bread, especially considering that the glumes of primitive domesticated plants would have adhered to the grain. Even though this idea (fermentation) was raised frequently in subsequent years (Katz and Voigt 1986), particularly in the context of the previously noted advantages (higher nutritional value) afforded by this process, it was considered improbable that beer was actually produced. More recently, however, the discussion was revisited in a contibution by P. McGovern (2009) who presented preliminary results from chemical studies made on two stone vessels from the PPN necropolis at Körtik Tepe which yielded traces of tartaric acid that accrues during the wine production process (McGovern 2009: 81).

Figure 1

A barrel- (upper right) and a trough-like (lower right) limestone vessel from Göbekli Tepe (Photos: N. Becker, © DAI). Six vessels with capacities up to 160 l were discovered so far in situ (left).

Recently, further chemical analyses were conducted by M. Zarnkow (Technical University of Munich, Weihenstephan) on six large limestone vessels from Göbekli Tepe. These (barrel/trough-shaped) vessels, with capacities of up to 160 litres, were found in-situ in PPNB contexts at the site. Already during excavations it was noted that some vessels carried grey-black adhesions. A first set of analyses made on these substances returned partly positive for calcium oxalate, which develops in the course of the soaking, mashing and fermenting of grain. Although these intriguing results are only preliminary, they provide initial indications for the brewing of beer at Göbekli Tepe, thus provoking renewed discussions relating to the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages at this early time. Further, they are particularly significant in light of results from genetic analyses, undertaken by a team from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo, which have suggested that the earliest domestication of grain occurred in the vicinity of the Karacadağ, i.e. very near to Göbekli Tepe (Heun et al. 1997 [external link]). Once again, we must ask whether the production of alcohol and the domestication of grain are interrelated. Finally, the aforementioned insights also provoke new questions relating to the use and consumption of alcohol at Göbekli Tepe, which may have been in the context of religiously motivated feasts and celebrations. Not surprisingly, such events are well attested in the ethnographic literature as a means of attracting and motivating large groups of people to undertake communal work and projects (Dietler and Herbich 1995).

Further reading:
Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J, Schmidt, K., Zarnkow, M. (2012) The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 86, 333: 674-695 (full text – external link).

Works cited:
Braidwood, R.J. & L.S. Braidwood. 1953. The Earliest Village Communities of Southwestern Asia. Journal of World History 1: 278–310.

Dietler, M. & I. Herbich 1995. Feasts and labor mobilization. Dissecting a fundamental economic practice, in Dietler, M. & B. Hayden (ed.), Feasts. Archaeological and ethnographic perspectives on food, politics, and power, 240-264. Washington / London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Heun, M., R. Schäfer-Pregl, D. Klawan, R. Castagna, M. Accerbi, B. Borghi & F. Salamini. 1997. Site of Einkorn wheat domestication identified by DNA fingerprinting. Science 278: 1312-1314.

Katz, S.H. & M.M. Voigt. 1986. Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet. Expeditions 28 (2): 23-34.

McGovern, P.E. 2009. Uncorking the past. The quest for wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages. Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press.