According to NASA the Universe is composed of dark energy, dark matter, and atoms which make up bodies such as stars and planets. There is also something unexpected. Deep in interstellar space there is a vast cloud of alcohol composed of ethanol and methanol measuring billions of miles across. It is located at the centre of the Milky Way 26,000 light years or 150 quadrillion miles away from earth. This proximity has raised a fascinating hypothesis about the initial formation of complex carbon molecules on this planet. Did the alcohol build up into carbon polymers and hitch a ride on comet heads that dispersed space dust on to the earth’s surface? If so then could it be that the primordial soup in which simple life developed was really a primordial cocktail?
Those single celled life forms needed energy and this came from sugars. Once ingested the sugars fermented and created waste products of alcohol and carbon dioxide. Glycolysis, or sugar fermentation, is believed to be the earliest form of energy production used by life on earth so 3.6 billion years ago alcohol was a major factor even in primitive bacteria society.
Around 100 million years ago the first fruit bearing trees appeared. For sugar loving creatures from insects to higher mammals this was the equivalent of an off license opening. Sugar oozing from the fruit attracted airborne yeast cells to ferment it so when insects and animals followed their nose to the syrupy prize they gobbled it up and became gently intoxicated on the alcohol that was the by-product of fermentation. Early hominids originated in what is now Africa and they lived largely on a diet of fruit. In the warm climate of their homelands ripe fruit would have quickly fermented giving an exciting buzz. This was not forbidden fruit however and it spurred our ancestors and animals to actively seek it out. Fermentation is highly beneficial because the nutritional value of the food is enhanced with increased amino acid and vitamin levels. Those augmented calories would sustain whoever ate them and help survive a hostile environment. Fermentation also made the food easier to digest, supplying nutrition and energy that caused the brain to grow larger.
Archaeologists believe that humans started purposely making alcoholic beverages in the Paleolithic between 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago – a more specific timeframe is not possible. Ingredients varied depending on where they lived – palm sap, figs and other fruits in Africa, wild grapes in the Caucasus. Honey was widely available everywhere and so Mead would have been an early beverage, if not the first. Later when it was discovered that root crops and wild cereals could be fermented almost everything growing in soil was fair game. No-one understood what caused food to turn as if by magic into nourishing alcohol so when religion became a part of the human experience, it was understood that alcohol was a gift from the deities and they were worshipped accordingly with libations offered in sacrifice. Even today alcohol is central in some Christian and Jewish rites and wine is mentioned in the holy books as God given.
Unknown to the drinkers their habits gave them an advantage over the abstemious because fermented food contains beneficial microflora called lactobacillus acidophilus which aid digestion, maintain healthy intestines and boost immune system functions. Alcohol also kills harmful microorganisms in food and water. Our early drinking ancestors lived longer, and reproduced more. Alcohol’s psychotropic effects made them cheerful and less inhibited, encouraged singing, dancing, flirting. Even when the party ended with fighting or face down on the savannah alcohol’s effects were too seductive to resist.
Different cultures throughout the world most likely started drinking independently with no knowledge of the others. But trade and exploration certainly spread the habit and appreciation of this mystic gift of nature. Major routes such as the Silk Road, river Nile, and Great Rift Valley were the equivalent of information superhighways. Alcohol is a social lubricant and helped to build community bonds, ease negotiations, resolve disagreements, seal contracts, commune with deities, perform rituals and celebrate significant events. In many cultures alcohol was, and in many places still is, central to society and features in all communal activities. In English when someone says ‘Let’s go for a drink’ they do not mean a cup of tea.
Alcohol has been used over millennia as a universal palliative due to medicinal properties such as pain relief, anti-oxidant, anti-septic, and to fight disease. Ancient societies in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Greece, and Rome used alcohol internally and externally to treat ailments and also used it as a delivery method in which to dissolve medicinal herbs and spices.
Apart from countries where alcohol is forbidden for religious reasons almost every nation in the world produces some type of booze – most commonly this is pilsner lager. Drinking is a custom that knows no cultural or class boundaries – it is a universal language.
In modern society there is no escape from alcohol. It is in countless everyday goods such as perfume, deodorant, mouthwash, and cleaning products. It is even present in the guts of people who consume carbohydrates which is almost everyone on earth. Sugars in food are fermented by intestinal microflora in a process called Auto Brewery Syndrome. But the amount of alcohol produced is not enough to make a cocktail with, nor is it an excuse to use in court for being over the limit when driving!
This blog is an abridged chapter from Jane Peyton’s book ‘Drink: A Tippler’s Miscellany. Buy a signed copy of the book here.