Friday, August 23, 2013

BEERology: Something to see, something to taste

By Joe Nalven

The Museum of Man has opened a yearlong exhibit on beer:  BEERology.  The exhibit is not about the beer making scene in San Diego - microbreweries and nanobreweries included.  The exhibit is about the worldwide history of beer making.
Moche (pre Inca) growler
The exhibit offers interesting things to see - particularly ancient pottery with functional uses. This was the way art used to be before it got conceptual and lost out on the fun. There will be beer tastings, too, in September, January, March and June.

Patrick McGovern’s work, cited by the Smithsonian and part of the back story for this exhibit, is known as the beer archaeologist and he surmises that beer may have been the spark for civilization in various parts of the ancient world:  “[That may have been the] case when early man decided to start farming. Why humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture could be the result of our ancestors’ simple urge for alcoholic beverages.”
Rex Garniewicz talking about the ancient Egyptian beer mug
This exhibit was brought together by Rex Garniewicz and Katherine Yee, primarily with artifacts from the Museum of Man’s collection.  The exhibit gets one to thinking about the importance of beer to how society worked thousands of years ago to our own interests and practices today.

One of the artifacts in this exhibit is one of seven known beer mugs from the period of Akhenaten (14th century BCE). The other six are in Egypt.
From explanatory wall at BEERology - Cuneiform symbols for beer
Equally fascinating is that Egyptian beer was loaded with antibiotics. The fermenting process produced tetracycline – more than what a doctor would prescribe today. How do we know that?  Bones from Egyptian mummies thousands of years old showed significant deposits of tetracycline in the bones.  That was no accident. That was beer.

BEERology takes us on a tour to different continents.  One commonality was that women were generally the brew-masters.  Stay at home, gather the grains and do the cooking. Start the day with a brewski, end the day with a brewski.
Quechua woman adding yeast (ca. 1992)
Was that how it was?  Clearly, the exhibit gets us to thinking and rethinking how society evolved and what the engine(s) were that served to promote society and goodwill.

However, there is a dark side to this beer drinking that I discuss when I teach about cultures of Latin America.

As part of a larger essay about the variation in drinking patterns in Bolivia (Sirionó, Camba, Aymara, Mestizo townspeople and Gringo buyers), Dwight Heath tells the sad tale of the well-intentioned anthropologist who unwittingly gave an steel ax to the Sirionó to replace their stone axes.

When the Sirionó, a hunting and gather society in the rainforest, used stone axes, cutting down bee hives to get the honey to make honey beer (or mead), it took much time and effort. With success, the drunken revelry that followed only increased sociability. Everyone had a good time.

But with the new steel ax, things changed.

“More honey flowed into the community, and it was promptly converted to beer. More beer meant more parties – and that meant less hunting. Meat, which was always in short supply, became especially scarce [ ]. Tempers grew short, with people exhorting each other to go out hunting, but with each hunter preferring to enjoy a prolonged drinking binge.”  (Dwight Heath, Changes in Drinking Patterns in Five Bolivian Cultures: A Cautionary Tale about Historical Approaches.

In this case, modernization and do-gooding had negative consequences for traditional Sirionó society.

So, yes there is much more to know about beer and how in interfaces with daily life. And then there is the history of wine, mead, hard liquor and hallucinogens.  Human society has used them all and we would benefit by understanding this larger picture rather than limit ourselves to current policies, beliefs, rituals and practices. 

1 comment:

  1. When potable water was an issue, the brewing of beer, resulted in a safe liquid to drink, and because it could be stored, a continuous source of safe drink was available.

    Boil water, safe for awhile, boil and brew, safe for many days. Now you have time to create civilization'