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Humans and Alcohol

The Archaeology of a Deeply Entangled Relationship

Tuesday, March 15, 2022 |
6:15 PM – 7:30 PM ET

One of the oldest known wine vessels in the world, circa 5000 BCE.


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Attitudes about alcohol exhibit a striking degree of ambivalence. On one hand, drinking alcohol is a broadly accepted and very popular activity around the world. Indeed, alcohol is by far the most widely and abundantly consumed psychoactive agent. Current estimates place the number of active consumers at over 2.4 billion people worldwide (or roughly a third of the earth’s population). Yet, alcohol has also sometimes acquired a bad reputation as a dangerous substance and caused several mass panics. Some governments and religions have even tried to ban it altogether. Archaeological evidence shows that the human relationship with alcohol is by no means recent: the practice of drinking has a very deep antiquity on multiple continents and the biological adaptation that enables humans and a few close primates to metabolize alcohol goes back at least 10 to 12 million years. This lecture presents an anthropological framework for understanding the social and cultural significance of alcohol and examines the archaeological evidence for drinking in the past, with particular attention to the nature and consequences of the wine trade in the ancient Mediterranean.

Michael Dietler is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, where he has been teaching since 1995. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and his B.A. from Stanford University, and he taught at Yale University before moving to Chicago. He conducts archaeological research in Europe, and ethnographic and historical research in Africa, Europe, and the US, frequently in collaboration with his wife, Ingrid Herbich. Professor Dietler has been a research fellow at the Paris Institute for Advanced Studies (France), the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and the School for Advanced Research (Santa Fe). He has also been a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and the University of Paris I (Sorbonne-Panthéon), and a research associate of the CNRS Unit 154 at Montpellier-Lattes (France). His volume on Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France was the 2012 recipient of the AIA James R. Wiseman Book Award. Professor Dietler is an AIA Norton Lecturer for 2021/2022.

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