The Origins of Inebriation: Archaeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages and Drugs in Prehistoric Eurasia

Abstract

The earliest testimonies of the use of alcohol and drugs suggest that inebriation is a long-established habit, the origins of which can be traced back to prehistory. Traces highly suggestive of fermented beverages and remains of psychoactive plants have been recovered from archaeological sites throughout prehistoric Europe. This paper surveys the history of these substances from a cultural approach based on the contexts of consumption. A wide range of documents will be examined here (macrofossil remains of psychoactive plants, residues of fermented beverages, alkaloids in archaeological items and artistic depictions, among others). Considering that these sensory-altering products are mainly found in tombs and ceremonial places, they seem to be strongly connected to ritual usages. Far from being consumed for hedonistic purposes, it can therefore be argued that drug plants and alcoholic drinks had a sacred role among prehistoric societies.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    These scenes depict human figures drinking from cups or sipping the liquids through long reeds or tubes, since beer in ancient times was not strained or filtered and it usually contained husks and other insoluble plant constituents (Ellison 1984). We have the account of Xenophon (Anabasis, IV, pp. 26–27) to testify this practice, when describing a beverage offered to him and his men in the territory of modern-day Armenia.

  2. 2.

    La Cueva de los Murciélagos de Albuñol has recently been re-studied. Four radiocarbon determinations date this site to the fifth millennium cal BC (Cacho et al. 1996).

  3. 3.

    The opium poppy capsule came to be an important motif among ancient Mediterranean societies because of its symbolic and ritual significance (Guerra-Doce 2002; Kritikos and Papadaki 1967a, b).

  4. 4.

    Hemp is a dioecious plant, that is, male and female flowers are found in different plants. The main psychoactive compound is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which occurs most abundantly in the female plants (Schultes and Hofmann 1980). The presence of burnt seeds in Pazyryk proves that the Scythians were aware of this, and consequently, they burnt female plants. In 1993, a similar kurgan containing the preserved body of a young woman, known as the Siberian Ice Maiden, was discovered on the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains, and more specifically in “The Pasture of Heaven”, an area used as a burial ground for many centuries. Among the grave goods of this Scythian lady, a small stone dish with burnt seeds was found, but in this case they turned out to be coriander. This is a strong-smelling plant that was probably burnt to cover odors (Polosmak and O’Rear 1994).

  5. 5.

    It should be noted that all of the world’s staple cereals (maize, rice, sorghum, millet, barley and wheat) are suitable for brewing. Therefore, their domestication would have provided more grain for the mass production of beer.

  6. 6.

    Unlike fruits, which already contain the requisite sugars, cereal’s insoluble starches must be converted into soluble sugars, through the action of enzymes. There have been two main ways of doing so: masticating the cereal grains, in which case the enzyme pyalin found in the saliva activates conversion, or else malting it (that is, steeping the grain in water for several days to set off the growth mechanism), in which case the process is triggered by diastase, a grouping of two separate enzymes formed from germinated cereal (alpha and beta amylase). Malted grain must then be crushed to facilitate the conversion of the starch into malt sugars during the mash. The added step of mashing, that is, the heating (but not boiling) of the crushed malted grain in water for a period of time, is essential so that all the starches are converted into sugars (saccharification). Temperature is critical at this point: if the water is too hot the starch will be killed; too cool a temperature and the enzymes will not re-activate optimally. Saccharification is indicated by the darkening of the mash. Finally, the wort, the liquid obtained from the mashing containing the sugars that will be fermented by the yeast to produce alcohol, is boiled to kill the enzymes that are still active (Dineley 2004; Nelson 2005).

  7. 7.

    According to some authors, there are no biomarkers available for confirming the presence of beer in ancient residues. Calcium oxalate detection on potsherds could have resulted from their being buried in calcium oxalate rich soil (Hornsey 2003, p. 92).

  8. 8.

    There is now ample evidence that most ancient grape wines and other fermented beverages were resinated intentionally, probably to provide antioxidants for preserving the beverage. Any resin used as a sealant came later; resins used to coat interiors and stoppers represent a much later development (probably eighth century BC at the earliest) (McGovern et al. 2013b).

  9. 9.

    Malvidin only provides evidence for color, not the natural product source (for this, tartaric acid is paramount) (see McGovern et al. 2013b).

  10. 10.

    Merryn Dineley (2004) upholds that barley beer may have been produced in Neolithic Britain, on the basis of the association of barley grains (some of them malted and barley lipids), level floors, drains and large Grooved Ware vessels. This pottery style of the British Neolithic comes in many sizes. Some pots are extremely large and would be suitable for fermentation of the wort. Similarly, some Irish archaeologists argue that the fulacht fiadh—the most common type of prehistoric site in Ireland, which consists of a horseshoe-shaped mound of soil and rocks surrounding a depression—were used primarily for the brewing of beer (Mullally 2012). Yet, for the time being, no solid evidence has been found to establish that these sites were used to malt, mash or brew beer.

  11. 11.

    References to the fondness of Celtic peoples for mead and beer are indeed provided by many Classical writers (Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Dioscorides, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Tacitus, among others). These references are very one-sided in their evaluation of Celtic beverages, showing a prejudice against beer (Nelson 2005). It has been suggested that wine progressively replaced mead as the élite drink of choice (Arnold 1999, p. 75). Apparently, wealthy classes, emulating the Greek custom of the symposium, consumed imported wine from the Mediterranean, whilst lower classes drank local mead and beer, at least among the Gauls and other tribes dwelling near to the Rhine or Danube. In contrast, Germanic tribes in northern Europe “on no account permit wine to be imported to them, because they consider that men degenerate in their powers of enduring fatigue, and are rendered effeminate by that commodity” according to Julius Caesar in his description of the Gallic Wars (Book IV, 2). Certainly, that area, in what is now Belgium, Germany and north-eastern France, is still reputed to brew some of the finest beers in the world. However, the importance of beer among the Celts declined as the Romans gained political and cultural hegemony over them (Nelson 2005).

  12. 12.

    This cauldron reminds the impressive bronze krater found in the grave of the Lady of Vix, at Côte-d´Or, but in this case it was likely to have been used for wine mixing (Joffroy 1962).

  13. 13.

    It has even been claimed that the origins of spiritual concepts and religious beliefs have been shaped by an innate emotional foundation in humans, which consists of the ability to enter into ecstatic states by means of a number of techniques (Bourguignon 1973; Hayden 2003; La Barre 1990). An excellent case can be made for alcoholic beverages and psychoactive plants having had a deep impact on human culture (Guerra 2006a; McGovern 2009).

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Guerra-Doce, E. The Origins of Inebriation: Archaeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages and Drugs in Prehistoric Eurasia. J Archaeol Method Theory 22, 751–782 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-014-9205-z

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Keywords

  • Prehistory
  • Europe
  • Drugs
  • Fermented beverages
  • Ritual