Ronald R Watson

History of Drinking The key to the importance of alcohol in history is that this simple substance, presumably present since bacteria first consumed some plant cells nearly 1.5 billion years ago, has become so deeply embedded in human societies that it affects their religion, economics, age, sex, politics, and many other aspects of human life.

Furthermore, the roles that alcohol plays differ, not only from one culture to the next but even within a culture over time. A single chemical compound, used (or sometimes emphatically avoided) by a single species, has resulted in a complex array of customs, attitudes, beliefs, values, and effects. A brief review of the history of this relationship illustrates both unity and diversity in the ways people have thought about and treated alcohol. Special attention is paid to the United States as a case study of particular interest to many readers.


Ethanol, the form of alcohol desired for use to produce favorable effects, is both created naturally, in the fermentation of exposed fruits, vegetables, and grains that have become overripe, and through the intervention of people who accelerate the process by controlling the conditions of fermentation. If we assume that it is ethanol that produces a host of presumed favorable effects, as well as alcohol-related problems, then the logic of labeling some drinks ''alcoholic'' can be justified. It is important to remember, however, that labels are merely a social convention. No matter how great its alcohol content may be, wine is thought of as ''food'' in much of France and Italy—as is beer in Scandinavia and Germany. Similarly, in the United States, many people who regularly drink beer in considerable quantities do not think of themselves as using alcohol. Some fruit juices, candies, and desserts come close to having enough alcohol to be so labeled, but they are not. Thus many of the concerns that people have about alcohol relate more to their expectations than to the actual pharmacological or biochemical impact that the substance would have on the human body.

According to the Bible, one of the first things Noah did after the great Flood was to plant a vineyard (Genesis 9:21). According to the predynastic Egyptians, the great god Osiris taught people to make beer, a substance that had great religious as well as nutritional value for them. Similarly, early Greeks credited the god Dionysus with bringing them wine, which they drank largely as a form of worship. In Roman times, the god Bacchus was thought to be both the originator of wine and always present within it. It was a goddess, Mayahuel, with 400 breasts, who supposedly taught the Aztecs how to make pulque from the sap

Police and alleged moonshiners pose with one of the two giant stills taken during the raid at a downtown Pittsburgh office building, July 22, 1922. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

of the century plant; that mild beer is still important in the diet of many Indians in Mexico, where it is often referred to as ''the milk of our Mother.'' In each of these instances, whether the giver was male or female, alcohol was viewed as supernatural, reflecting deep appreciation of its important roles in nourishing and comforting people.

Anthropologists often treat myths as if they were each people's own view of history, but clearly it would be difficult to take all myths at face value. We cannot know when or where someone first sampled alcohol, but we can imagine that it might well have been just an attempt to make the most of an overripe fruit or a soured bowl of gruel. The taste, or the feeling that resulted, or both, may have been pleasant enough to prompt repetition and then experimentation. Probably it happened not just once but various times, independently, at a number of different places, just as did the beginnings of agriculture.

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