Most of us appreciate a cold cocktail after work or a chilled beer at a summer BBQ, but we’re far from the first humans to enjoy alcohol. In fact, archaeologists think that people first started consuming beer and wine over ten thousand years ago – to put that in perspective, alcohol predates the invention of the wheel by about three millennia.
Written by Ben Deeb
The earliest archaeological evidence for alcohol comes from a nine-thousand-year-old clay jar in northern China. When scientists ran tests on the inside of the jar, they found residue from fermented grapes, hawthorn berries, honey and rice. While it’s probable that humans had discovered alcohol earlier by eating partly-fermented fruit fallen from trees, this jar is the oldest example we have of people mixing and storing alcohol for later consumption.
Early winemaking was hardly relegated to a small area in Northern China. All over the world, people discovered the intoxicating effects of wine and beer, and drinking became an important part of cultures worldwide. By 1500 BCE, the invention of alcohol had spread from Asia to Europe, Africa, and even the Americas. Drinking was such an important part of life that cultures in Greece, Babylon, and Mexico, all had specific gods of wine. It played an essential role in many religious ceremonies, and drinking became incredibly commonplace.
Back then, alcohol consumption wasn’t only acceptable at night or in social situations. It was a huge part of daily life. In classical Greece, wine was consumed each day with breakfast (and those who abstained from alcohol were considered barbarians). In Egypt, drinking was so widespread that even slaves were allotted 1.3 gallons of beer a day while they built the pyramids. Romans enjoyed wine to such an extent that they regularly held Bacchanalia – alcohol-fueled festivals in honor of Bacchus, their god of wine, freedom, intoxication, and ecstasy. While some cultures did have laws against excessive intoxication, beer and wine were everywhere, and were often consumed constantly.
It wasn’t until the first century CE that people first started (literally) experimenting with hard liquor. The first person to perfect the distillation process and make pure alcohol was a Persian polymath named Al Razi, who was investigating the properties of different chemicals. Alchemists at Alexandria built on his discovery, and over the next thousand years, people began distilling more and more spirits (so named because they thought they had discovered the essence or “spirit” of the wine). The first whiskey, gin, and vodka popped up in Europe around the 1200’s and shortly after, distillation spread worldwide.
Today, even the smallest liquor store has dozens of offerings, often from all around the world. Bartenders and brewers are still coming up with novel new ways to create and serve alcohol, and there’s no sign that they’re going to stop. Alcohol’s become a prevalent part of human life – it’s strange to think it’s all thanks to some curious people thousands of years ago.