Bread and Beer

Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet

By: Solomon H. Katz and Mary M. Voigt

Originally Published in 1986

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This article has an intellectual history that begins with a fascinating exchange in the early 1950s. Robert Braidwood’s field work at Jarmo (see the intro­duction to this issue) led the botanist Jonathan D. Sauer to suggest that the earliest use of wheat and barley may not have been as flour for bread, but for beer. Braidwood posed Sauer’s question to his col­leagues as follows:

“Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grain yielded a palat­able and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breed­ing of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread making? One would assume that the utilisation of wild cereals (along with edible fruits and berries) as a source of collected food would have been in existence for millennia before their domestic­ation . . . took place. Was the subse­quent impetus to this domestication bread or beer?” (1953:515).

The respondents to this question read like a Who’s Who of anthro­pology and archaeology at that time. These scholars looked at the topic from almost every angle, and tenta­tively concluded that people never lived by beer alone, but must have lived first by gruel, then by bread, and finally by bread and beer. In the past thirty-five years, much new evidence has come not only from archaeology, but also from the field of human nutrition, and especially from the study of what Katz has called the “biocultural evolution of cuisine.” This information provides new insights into the relationship between people and food in pre­history, as well as a somewhat different answer to Braidwood’s question.

A New Paradigm: The Biocultural Evolution of Cuisine

There are thousands of plants that humans could consume. Yet the number for which there is actual evidence of consump­tion, either now or in the past, is only in the hundreds, and approxi­mately thirty plants provide over 95 percent of the vegetable calories consumed by the world’s human population today. These staple crops include grasses such as wheat, rice, corn, millet, and sorghum, and root crops such as yams, manioc, taro, potato, and sweet potato. A third group of cultivated plants, the legumes or pulses (lentils, many varieties of peas and beans), are eaten in smaller quantities than the staples, but play an important role because of the high quality of their protein nutrients and the variety that they provide.

The plants we now eat connect us in some remarkable ways with our past. Most of the plants we prepare as foods today are domesticated varieties of the wild plants that our ancestors consumed thousands of years ago. Over the last twenty years Katz has worked on a number of problems that integrate the past and present by examining how traditional peoples select diets and prepare foods that satisfy their nutritional needs. By studying the ways in which natural nutritional limitations present in some modern food plants are overcome by their consumers, and by combining this knowledge with what we know of the history and archaeology of the edible plants, we can obtain new insights into a wide range of prob­lems. For example, we can begin to piece together plausible explanations of how domestication might have occurred, to develop new under­standings about the evolutionary basis of styles of cooking or “cuisine,” and, more broadly, to develop new models of the processes of human biological and cultural evolution.

Let us start on the most general level, that of the relationship be­tween biological and cultural evolu­tion. Plants, like all other biological organisms, have various kinds of naturally evolved defenses against predation. Most plants are protected by chemical substances (“secondary compounds”), located in the seeds and to a lesser extent in the leaves. These compounds discourage pred­ators by producing a toxic response in any organism that ingests them. Before the plants can become useful food, some process must be evolved to neutralize the toxins. One process is biological change: certain organ­isms have genetically evolved so that they are exquisitely adapted to specific plant defenses, and as a result can subsist on these plants without harm from the toxins.

Humans have been subject to this biological process. This can be demonstrated by a study of the distribution of certain genetic traits throughout the world. Depending on the importance of a specific food within the diet, different human populations vary in their ability to consume it without harm. For ex­ample, one well-known adaptation that is at least partially genetically controlled involves the ability of adults to digest fresh milk. Nearly all newborn mammals have an enzyme (lactase) in their small intestine that breaks down and permits the absorption of the sugar in milk (lactose). In most mammals this enzyme is reduced with age. For example, in many human in­dividuals the amount of lactase present has decreased greatly by the age of four, so that drinking any quantity of fresh milk will result in cramps and diarrhea. Within popu­lations that practice dairying, how­ever, a high proportion of the adults continue to produce lactase and thus can utilize the energy present in milk sugars. Thus the ability to secrete lactase beyond childhood is apparently the result of a mutation that became “established” because it gave an advantage to those that carried it, allowing them to convert a readily available but potentially harmful substance into a nutritionally beneficial one.

Another biological adaptation can be inferred from the effect of wheat on human groups that have only recently begun to use this crop as food. Such groups have higher frequencies of a genetic trait that is associated with an inability to digest gluten, a substance that occurs in high concentrations in most modern varieties of wheat. Within groups that have relied on wheat as a staple for a long period of time, individuals with such genetic traits would have been at a nutritional disadvantage, and their descendants presumably declined in number until the gene became rare or totally eliminated from the population.

Such examples of human biolog­ical adaptation appear to be rare. The majority of cases where natural plant defense mechanisms have been overcome by humans involve cul­tural adaptations rather than bio­logical ones. Any change in behavior that can be transmitted by learning can be more rapidly established than a change that is genetically based. Katz has suggested that the learned behavior that is most effec­tive in rendering plants nontoxic takes the form of food processing, or practices of cuisine. There are, of course, other ways of culturally overcoming plant defenses. For example, suppose that experiments in cultivation and propagation of a particular plant led to the discovery of a variant that lacked the toxic effects that protected the wild form. While new nontoxic varieties might seem desirable at first glance, the investment of time and labor in such crops would have been self-defeating: the plant’s defenses would have been lowered not only to humans but also to all of the other organisms that competed with humans for this food source. These competitors, including insects, birds and other mammals, would have outnumbered and out-eaten humans.

So the evolution of cuisine made certain plants accessible to humans, but only to humans. No other organism could acquire the complex behavior necessary to transform marginally nutritious and outright toxic substances into high-quality nutritious foods; instead they re­quired elaborate genetically based digestive and metabolic adaptations. Hence Katz has proposed that our ancestors, like us, overcame plant defenses in the proverbial “cooking pot” (Fig. 3). This process will probably continue into the future. With modern scientific understand­ing of this largely empirical process, it is possible that plants not yet edible will be consumed in the future, once we learn their chemical “secrets.”

The study of processes of adap­tation such as those described above has led to a basic change in the way that many anthropologists view the process of human evolution. A new “paradigm” or conceptual approach has developed that does not treat biological and cultural evolution as isolated phenomena, but instead examines the relationship between the biologically evolved capacities of the human species and the cul­turally evolved factors that complement and supplement these bio­logical adaptations.

One way to consider the process of biocultural evolution is in terms of the transfer of information. The heritable macromolecule DNA pro­vides for the transfer of biological information from one generation to the next; cultural information is transmitted by language and pre­cepts. Both bodies or “pools” of information become part of the process by which humans have adapted to their particular environ­ment. The bridge between the bio­logical and cultural information pools exists in the human central nervous system. Biologically, the central nervous system has highly specialized capacities; these capa­cities permit the transfer of cultural information that in turn helps to “program” the central nervous sys­tem. Thus the specific form that human behavior takes is the result of both biological and sociocultural factors. Both systems of information evolve and are critical for the sur­vival of a particular human popu­lation in the environment that it exploits.

Given this feedback process, one important aspect of the biobehavioral evolutionary process is the unusually long time that humans take to reach full maturity. It is widely accepted that this extended period of growth and development (a strictly biological characteristic) is necessary to provide enough time for the transfer of the cultural information needed for survival by the new generation. This information transfer requires stability. In all probability, myths, stories, and legends, some of which were woven into ritual practices, all play a critical role in the process of stabilizing the content of traditions that are passed from one generation to the next, as well as the social context through which they flow. Once stability has been achieved, the trial and error process that must originally lead to the evolution of specific traditions is no longer necessary.

Among the most crucial traditions are those related to subsistence: the acquisition, processing, and consumption of food. One general pattern in the evolution of subsistence traditions can be observed worldwide. The domestication of plants marks a turning point in the relationship between foods and food-processing techniques. Plants that came under cultural control tended to become more and more important in the diet. At the same time, the allocation of time to agricultural tasks (seeding, weeding, harvesting) led to the neglect of a wide range of seasonal wild foods that were once collected. The net result is summarized in Figure 1: as the number of plant species consumed has decreased over the past millennia, the number of recipes to prepare plants has increased. This has led to the formation of elaborate food traditions and rituals that have been passed down as cultural adap­tations from one generation to the next, just as genetic adaptations to wheat and dairy products were biologically transmitted between generations (Figs. 2-3). So variety was maintained and the nutrients necessary for healthy human survival were stabilized.

The Origins of Food Production

The model of biocultural evo­lution provides us with in­sights that are useful in attempting to answer a question that still confronts archaeologists: How did the “Neolithic Revolution” ever get started in the first place? The complex processes by which people domesticated plants and animals occurred independently in several regions of the world. In this article we will consider only the Near East, and specifically the factors that led to the domestication of cereals.

At present, the earliest known domesticated plants in this region have been found at sites in the Levant, the area that is now Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Rare seeds of wheat, barley, and lentils that differ in shape from their wild ancestors appear at settlements such as Tell Aswad, Jericho, and Nahal Oren by ca. 8000 B.C. (Fig. 4). At earlier sites occupied by hunters and gatherers (known collectively as the Natufian “culture” or tradition), the presence of sickle blades, grinding tools, storage pits, and seeds indicates that wild cereals were harvested at many locations.

Over the last two decades, many archaeologists have favored envi­ronmental factors as causal elements leading to experimentation with the cultivation of wild cereals. Briefly, they theorized that as climatic conditions changed at the end of the last glaciation or Pleistocene period, groups in the Near East, and es­pecially in the Levant, gradually became more dependent on one wild resource—the easily collected and stored wild cereals. (The extent to which cereals were present within this region during the Pleistocene is not certain; evidence from pollen cores as well as from archaeological sites does indicate that wheat and barley were more widespread and abundant during the warmer, wetter Holocene [beginning ca. 9000 B.C. in the Levant].) In some very favorable locations, wild foods were so readily available that groups such as the Natufians were able to remain year round in the same location, either in caves or in large open sites, e.g., villages such as Ain Mallaha (Eynan) in Israel and Mureybit in Syria. With sedentary life came a growth in population that eventually put pressure on the supply of major food sources, including the wild cereals. This pressure resulted in the migration of part of the population into less favorable areas, without good stands of wild wheat and barley. In order to obtain a suf­ficiently large quantity of these staple foods, the migrants began to experiment with the propagation of these species. Need eventually led to the practice of keeping seeds and planting them.

Current archaeological evidence does not support this hypothesis. Not only was there an apparent decrease in the consumption of wild cereals during the period when the initial experiments with their culti­vation and propagation must have taken place (see Sillen this volume), but domestication apparently took place within areas with an abun­dance of wild resources. Moreover, even after cereals and pulses were fully domesticated, they formed only a very minor part of the diet. A heavy dependence on crops such as wheat, barley, lentils, and vetch is not evident archaeologically until hundreds of years after their initial appearance. For example, at the site of Ali Kosh in southwestern Iran, a large and well-preserved sample of carbonized plant remains was recovered from settlements occupied from ca. 7000 to ca. 6000 B.C. Domesticated cereals (barley and emmer wheat) made up only 3.4 percent of the plant fragments during the initial phase of settlement and were still rare a thousand years later (Helbaek 1969:Table 3).

Scholars have therefore swung away from deterministic models that emphasize environmental fac­tors and strictly biological needs, and turned instead to the investi­gation of cultural factors. In a recent publication dedicated to Robert Braidwood, many of the contributors suggested that social conditions and motives may have been critical in the shift from hunting and gathering to food production. This point of view was summarized by Robert McC. Adams:

“(I find) it hard to escape the impression that throughout the entire Near Eastern prehistoric sequence, there was a lot of room to rattle around in. Where, and how densely, people settled, then, is more likely to reflect a culturally constrained choice among subsistence or other locational preferences than a de­cision imposed by an uncontrollable decline in the net balance of re­sources over needs” (Young et al. 1983:371).

Our own explanation for the beginnings of cereal cultivation is consistent with the biocultural model for the evolution of cuisine. The key element in this explanation, the event that “primed the pump” and led people to choose to invest energy in the collection and propagation of wild wheat and barley, was the discovery of new food processing techniques—the sprouting and fer­mentation of these grains.

Fermentation: The Key to Alcohol and Nutrition

Suppose that the consumption of a food produced an altered state of awareness or conscious­ness that was noticeable, but that did not have serious toxic side effects such as motor impairment. Now suppose that this food also had a second, imperceptible effect, a substantial improvement in nutri­tional value over the unprocessed cereal grains. This is exactly what happens when barley and wheat are fermented into beer.

We suggest that among the factors that led to the domestication of wild cereals were the following. First, the motivation for a change in behavior (an allocation of time and labor to the collection and eventually to the propagation of cereals) was provided by a noticeable pheno­menon—the “high” that people obtained from beer. Second, indi­viduals and groups who consumed beer were better nourished than those who consumed wheat and barley as gruel or who ignored these wild resources. Beer would have had sustaining powers well beyond any other food in their diet except animal proteins. In biological terms, beer drinkers would have had a “selective advantage” in the form of improved health for themselves and ultimately for their offspring. Third, cereals were a desirable resource because of the ease with which they could be harvested, transported, and stored from year to year. In the following section we will examine the first two factors.

If we start with the assumption that people consciously modify their behavior and make choices as in­dividuals and as groups concerning the kinds of activities they pursue, then the question of motivation for the shift in food-getting behavior that is involved in the process of domestication is critical. It is impor­tant to note that many of the traditions surrounding successful food strategies become highly ritual­ized. One consistent pattern is the inordinate amount of ritual practice and attention given to foods which have a mind-altering or psychophar­macological effect. Almost invari­ably, individuals and societies ap­pear to invest enormous amounts of effort and even risk to pursue the continued consumption of a food with a mind-altering property. Be­cause the behavior associated with the search for such foods is so intense, however, it can lead to social disorder. Thus, religious and social traditions have developed that serve to control these foods by prescribing and proscribing them as a part of ritual practices and specified social occasions. Given the importance of mind-altering foods during historic times, it seems highly likely that they were dis­covered and used at a relatively early point in human evolution.

The most consistently sought-after beverage with psychopharmacolog­ical effects seems to be alcohol. The combination of its initial elevating effects on the emotions, its per­ception-altering qualities, and the fact that it is easily metabolized and usually nontoxic make alcohol an ideal psychopharmacological sub­stance, or drug. In traditional so­cieties, beer with a low alcoholic content is characteristically asso­ciated with a number of secular and nonsecular occasions. These include the formation of groups for labor (harvesting, large-scale construction tasks); ritual ceremonies, including those marking rites of passage such as a marriage or a funeral; and social gatherings (see, for example, the use of millet beer by the Kofyar in Nigeria; Netting 1964). Within the Near East, there is ample evidence that beer played an important role in the economy and ideology of the Sumerians, the most ancient people for whom we have written docu­ments (see box on Beer in Meso­potamia). If the discovery of fer­mentation was made by collectors of wild cereals, and if the use of beer was incorporated into the social and/or religious system of these people, then any disruption in the supply of these wild foods would have posed a serious problem, and the transition from Epipaleolithic food collectors to Neolithic culti­vators would thus be accounted for.

The enormous nutritional potential provided by cereal proteins and vitamins made the cultivation of these crops biologically as well as economically profitable.Both wheat and barley are largely composed of complex carbohydrates, with ap­proximately 13-20 percent protein and a small amount of fat. As a source of food they are limited in several ways. First, both of these cereals have low levels of the essential amino acid lysine; without lysine, most of the remaining amino acids in wheat and barley cannot be synthesized into usable protein by the human body. Second, barley (but not wheat) has low levels of the essential sulfur-containing amino acids (see below). Third, B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine) are present in both wheat and barley, but not in sufficiently high levels to meet basic nutritional needs. Fourth, these grains, in particular wheat, are high in the concentration of sub­stances called phytates that bind essential minerals like calcium and prevent their absorption in the digestive tract.

It is yeast that converts the cereal grains from a nutritionally limited source of proteins and vitamins into an outstanding source of human nutrition. Both brewing and the making of many types of bread involve the growth of yeast cells. Yeast produces a rich source of lysine, significantly improves the B-vitamin content of the mixture, and decreases the concentration of phy­tates, thereby permitting the absorp­tion of more essential minerals such as calcium. Some of the vitamins that are enhanced are not available from other plant sources. The major disadvantage of yeast is that the adult human can consume only about 20-25 grams of yeast nucleic acid per day. Beyond that level, a build-up of serum uric acid occurs that may cause high blood pressure gout, and kidney abnormalities.

Wild yeast is present in the air The simple exposure of a mixture of cereals and water, whether in the form of a thin gruel or a thicker dough, will result in the implantation and growth of yeast cells. For example, the sourdough used by pioneers in the American West and Alaska was made by combining flour with milk or water and keeping it in a warm place until it began to bubble from the activity of the airborne yeast. Once established, a yeast strain can be saved and used as a starter to ensure the quality of the next batch of bread or to speed up the fermentation process in beer.

The critical step that differentiates bread from beer is the addition of diastase enzymes that convert the cereal starches into sugar, which is used by the yeast to be eventually turned into alcohol. Traditional brewing techniques increase diastase levels through the addition of malt, or sprouted grain (see box on Traditional Methods of Bread and Beer Making). The first step of the malting process is to soak the cereals in water. A substantial amount of diastase enzymes form in the root tips. Wheat is not as efficient as barley in this respect, but barley produces enough diastase to break down the starch of an almost equal quantity of wheat. The value of a mixture of wheat and barley is that wheat adds the sulfur-containing essential amino acids that barley is low in. If the process of growth is allowed to continue, the amount of diastase present begins to decline. The sprouted cereal is therefore left to parch in the sun or is artificially heated until lightly toasted; as a result the rootlet dies, but the diastase enzyme levels remain high.

Once the cereal has dried out, the softened hull is easily ground. When the ground malt is added to a mixture of cereal and water, the conversion from starch to sugar begins; this process is known as “mashing.” Hydrolized starches, obtained from heating water and raw cereal grains into a porridge, are most susceptible to the effects of the diastases, so that the barley diastases are often mixed into a cooked porridge of water and cereal grains.

During fermentation, the maltose feeds the yeast so that it grows. This process will produce alcohol (rather than some other metabolic product) if two other conditions are met: the fermentation medium must be both acidic and anaerobic (without ox­ygen). Acid conditions can be main­tained by allowing the porridge to sour overnight through the intro­duction of lactic-acid-producing bacteria found in the air. Once such bacteria are found, they can be kept alive as a starter along with the yeast, and transferred from an old brew to a new one. Anaerobic conditions are also relatively easy to obtain. When the yeast begins to grow, carbon dioxide forms and bubbles up to the surface. If the beer is in a container shielded from the air, the carbon dioxide will itself shut off enough oxygen to ensure alcohol production.

It should be noted that beer and bread are not nutritionally equiva­lent. The optimum growth of yeast requires the full transformation of sugar into carbon dioxide and water. If alcohol is produced, yeast growth declines; there is, therefore, an inverse relationship between the amount of sugar converted to alcohol and the nutritional value of the resulting cereal product. Under optimal conditions for brewing, the oxygen supply is carefully regulated and the resulting beer will contain about 15 to 18 percent alcohol. Traditional brewing methods, how­ever, are less controlled, allowing air to reach the mixture. As a result, the alcohol concentration is only 5 percent or less, leaving plenty of sugar to be converted into protein. For example, Sotho sorghum beer (see box with recipe) contains about 3.5 percent alcohol. On the other hand, bread production requires heat, which kills the yeast and stops the enhancement of the protein content.

Within the context of the argument presented here, the fact that bread may represent a more efficient way to enhance the nutritional value of cereals, and eventually became the primary way of preparing and consuming wheat, is not strictly relevant. Relative quantities of vita­mins and proteins are not immedi­ately perceptible to consumers, and could not serve as a factor in conscious decision-making in 10,000 B.C. Traditional unfiltered beer with a low alcohol content is a nutri­tionally valuable food; but more importantly, the presence of alcohol significantly enhanced a second aspect of its consumption, its cultural value.

Beer in Mesopotamia

The most ancient documentary evidence for beer production comes from Mesopotamia, written in the Sumerian language on tablets that date to the 3rd mil­lennium B.C. The world’s oldest recipe is for beer! A highly detailed description of the brewing process is related as part of a myth that tells how Enki, the third-ranked god in the Sumerian pantheon, prepared a banquet for his father, Enlil, the second-ranked god. A second recipe is found in a hymn to the beer goddess Ninkasi, whose name is translated as “the lady who fills the mouth.” Lexical texts contain long lists of very specific terms related to brewing techniques. Rations of beer (as well as barley) were issued to those attached to the estates of Sumerian temples and palaces, ordi­nary laborers receiving about one liter per day. In general, we can say that beer was an important food that was integrated into the myth­ology, religion, and economy of the Sumerians.

The purely personal pleasure that these people took in beer drinking is summed up in the following song, written to celebrate the building of a tavern. The toast in the second verse quoted here is addressed to the tavern keeper, who is apparently a woman: “Let the heart of the gakkul (fermenting) vat be our heart!
What makes your heart feel wonderful, Makes also our heart feel wonderful. Our liver is happy, our heart is joyful. You poured a libation over the brick of destiny, You placed the foundations in peace and prosperity, May Ninkasi live together with you! Let her pour for you beer and wine, Let the pouring of the sweet liquor resound pleasantly for you! In the . . reed buckets there is sweet beer, I will make cupbearers, boys, and brewers stand by, While I turn around the abundance of beer, While I feel wonderful, I feel wonderful, Drinking beer, in a blissful mood, Drinking liquor, feeling exhilarated, With joy in the heart and a happy liver—While my heart full of joy. And my happy liver I covered with a garment fit for a queen!” (Civil 1964)

Pictorial representations show the vessels used to brew and store Sumerian beer. All have a similar shape, with long narrow necks and a pointed base (Fig. 7). This form also appears on the most ancient (pictographic) tablets, and is trans­lated as “clay container” by Margaret Green of The University Museum’s Babylonian Section. A clay container sign with dashes inside refers to beer (Fig. 8). The beer was con­sumed from goblets, or from jars through long straws (Fig. 11). The earliest example of this kind of scene, on a stamp seal, is from Tepe Gawra, and extends the period for which we have direct evidence of beer drinking to ca. 4000 B.C. (Fig. 10).

The use of straws has sometimes puzzled modern authors. One expert on the history of technology inter­prets them as evidence that the beer was of “doubtful quality” (Hodges 1970:115). Leaving aside the question of what constitutes a good-tasting beer, a study of traditional methods of brewing in Africa provides a very practical explanation of the straws. The Sumerian texts describe both filtered and unfiltered beers. In drinking unfiltered beer, a straw would have been necessary to pene­trate below a layer of hulls and yeast floating on the surface. Most straws were probably made from reeds, but the wealthy used pure gold straws such as the one found in the tomb of the lady Pu-abi at Ur (Fig. 11). Pu-abi’s straw was lying next to a silver vessel that presum­ably contained her daily ration of beer.

A Hypothetical Reconstruction

Although few seeds have been recovered from Natufian sites in the southern Levant, the presence of sickle blades, storage pits, and stone pounding and grind­ing tools from sites dating ca. 10,000 B.C. (the Terminal or Epipaleolithic period) has been interpreted as evidence for the collection of wild cereals by groups of hunters and gatherers. At contemporary and probably related sites in northern Syria, large quantities of wild wheat and barley as well as legumes have been recovered. But how were these wild cereals prepared as food? The first step was probably to pound the seeds in a stone mortar. Both wild wheat and wild barley (as well as early domesticated varieties) are husked: the seeds are encased in glumes and are not freed by thresh­ing. Epipaleolithic groups could have broken up the husks by placing the grain in mortars and pounding them with pestles—tools that are usually very common at these sites. Alternatively the cereal could have been “parched” or roasted on an open hearth. (At this time, neither pottery vessels nor ovens with closed firing chambers were in use.)

It is generally agreed that the simplest method of cooking cereals is to prepare a gruel, a mixture of the broken-up cereal particles (prob­ably including the husks) and water. The container used by the Natufians would have been of an organic material, a skin bag or perhaps a basket or wooden vessel. A second method of preparation might involve sprouting the cereal by soaking it in water. The process of soaking has been widely used to make toxic plants palatable (for example, acorns in the Near East), and it seems highly likely that it was in common use during Paleolithic times. If cereals were steeped, the germin­ation process would have broken the seed coat, made it easier to grind up the cereal for gruel, and enhanced the taste as well.

The key step in making beer would have been the addition of sprouted and ground cereals to water. If this special gruel was heated and then allowed to stand overnight or longer, wild yeasts would have started the process of fermentation. In the Middle East, where daily summer temperatures can reach 120° F or more, there would have been little need to heat the brew. Even in winter, putting the mixture in a sunny spot would provide adequate heat for the yeast to work during the day, and at night it might have been placed near a fire.

Given the steps involved in prep­aration, the making of gruel must have preceded the invention of bread as well as beer. Unleavened breads require only that a thick mixture of pounded cereal and water be heated. Such breads are, however, rather tasteless, and lack the nutritional advantages of leavened bread. Their popularity in the Middle East and India in recent times may be related to the spread of religions that prohibit the con sumption of alcohol: the baking of unleavened breads provides a means of preventingany fermentation from occurring. In any case, as cereals formed a higher proportion of the diet we can be sure that they were consumed in a variety of forms since the amount of beer a person can consume is usually limited by social norms, if not by physiology.

Again, the key to a more nutritious as well as a tastier meal lies in exposure of the dough to wild yeasts before heating it. Early leavened breads would have been quite dense, since the earliest varieties of wheat, as well as all varieties of barley, contain little gluten. Gluten is a protein substance that gives dough elasticity so that it produces a light, porous loaf. The earliest high gluten wheat, a complex hybrid appropri­ately called “breadwheat,” appeared in the Near East after 7000 B.C. (Tell Aswad II), and was distributed from Greece to Iran by 5500 B.C.

The Critical Role of Beermaking in Domestication

The essential difference be­tween bread and beer as a means of exploiting cereal grains is that brewing yields alcohol. One major advantage of bread (in addition to the fact that it does not contain alcohol) is that it can be made faster than beer. It is also more portable, and can be carried on long journeys. Both foods may well have been used by Epipaleo­lithic hunters and gatherers, but in unknown quantities. Trace element studies of human skeletons from the southern Levant (the area in which domestication first took place, on present evidence) indicate that cer­eals were only a minor part of the Natufian diet (see Sillen, this issue). A low dependence on cereals might also be inferred from the near absence of charred cereal grains at Natufian camps and villages in this region and from sites where domes­ticated cereals have been found. For example, the “Pre-Pottery Neo­lithic A settlement” at Jericho (ca. 8000 B.C.) produced only six grains of domesticated barley, two of do­mesticated wheat, and three pieces of unidentified legume(s). On the other hand, charred seeds are com­mon at Natufian Abu Hureyra and Mureybit in the north. This differ­entiation suggests either that our picture of Natufian diets is distorted by accidents of preservation, or that the amount of wild cereal consumed varied significantly between regions.

Bearing in mind these uncertain­ties, we can return to our initial question: Under what conditions would the consumption of a wild plant resource be sufficiently im­portant to Iead to a change in behavior (experiments with culti­vation) in order to ensure an ade­quate supply of this resource? If wild cereals were in fact a minor part of the diet, any argument based on caloric need is weakened. It is our contention that the desire for alcohol would constitute a perceived psychological and social need that might easily prompt changes in subsistence behavior. This type of need would be present whether beer was but one of a series of cereal-based foods that made up a significant part of the diet, or was an occasional food in a diet com­posed primarily of animal and/or other plant foods.

Although we cannot now directly determine whether beer preceded bread in time, there is some archaeo­logical evidence that suggests the relative importance of these sub. stances for Neolithic peoples in the Near East. Barley appears without wheat at one early site with a good sample of seeds. In the Zagros moun­tains, where Braidwood’s Jarmo is located, the earliest evidence for domesticated plants comes from Ganj Dareh, where both wild and domesticated barley (as well as peas, lentils, and other wild seeds) were found in contexts dated to ca. 7000 B.C. The only Neolithic site that has produced wheat but no barley is Hayaz Hüyük in south­eastern Turkey. Hayaz is, however, atypical. It seems to represent a specialized camp for flint working, rather than a village where the entire range of domestic activities was carried out.

Direct evidence that beer con­sumption led to the domestication of barley and wheat is lacking. Such evidence might eventually be found in the form of sprouted cereal grains from an Epipaleolithic or earls Neolithic site, but the chances for preservation of cereals in this fora are low, given the fragility of seed: with a broken hull. Beer drinking may also prove to be detectable is human skeletons. As noted above one physiological disadvantage of yeast is that consumption above certain level causes a build-up o: serum uric acid.The inflammation of the joints associated with gout in fact caused by the deposition o urates (uric acid salts) in and around the joints. If the urates leave any kind of permanent mark on tin bone itself, it may eventually be possible to identify Neolithic beer drinkers from their skeletal remains, especially in the case of the older members of a population.

The argument for beer making is compatible with one aspect of the archaeological record that has long puzzled scholars: the rarity of car­bonized seeds at sites that have abundant chipped and ground stone artifacts associated with cereal cul­tivation and processing. Beer making does not necessarily include any process that exposes cereal grains to fire; it could be an everyday activity and yet produce not a single car­bonized seed. In fact, given the present evidence, we would have to argue that the wild and early cul­tivated cereals were most likely to have been consumed either as un­cooked gruel or as beer. The hulls must have been removed by mechan­ical action before mixing the cereal with water. Parching, a process that is much more likely to produce carbonized cereal grains, was prob­ably a later invention. In fact, it could be argued that the appearance of numerous charred grains after ca. 7000 B.C. is related specifically to the invention of parching.

The historical and ethnographic records provide evidence of the value placed on beer. Within the area where cereal domestication took place, the Near East, the earliest written records as well as represen­tational art testify to its importance. Studies of modern traditional groups in the Old World demonstrate the simplicity of the technology, and the ease by which critical steps might have been discovered. Eth­nography also indicates the extent to which alcohol and other drugs were prized and incorporated into the social, economic, and religious systems of most cultures.

A brief hypothetical sequence for the domestication process might include the following steps.

(1)    The scattered but sometimes abundant wild cereals were gathered by groups living in the natural habitat zone of wheat and barley.

(2)    After initial use of the cereals in a gruel or porridge, the technology of brewing was developed in a series of steps including: the ac­cidental sprouting and drying of the cereal, which assisted in the removal of the hull or seed coat; discovering the sweet taste of the sprout; the use of sprouted, dried, and ground cereals in a gruel that was left to stand for some period; the obser­vation that the “old” gruel did not spoil, but instead tasted sweet and had distinct effects on the mind and emotions.

(3)    Alcohol gained importance to the society because of its social uses. Of course, alcohol could have been made from other foods such as honey or fruit. A cereal-based brew, however, would have had two benefits, one readily observable by the members of the community and one hidden: it would have allowed the rare and seasonally restricted sweetening agents to have been used for foods other than alcoholic beverages, and it would have added a new high-value food to the diet.

(4)    Once alcohol had been in­corporated into specific social and/ or ritual events, maintaining a supply of the plants necessary for the preparation of this beverage would have some importance. When the supply of wild cereal was inade­quate, experimentation with these plants (cultivation, propagation) was begun in order to increase yields. Thus cultural values and traditions would have encouraged behavior that maintained the cereals from generation to generation until they were fully under human control, or “domesticated.” Based on present archaeological evidence, this process probably occurred within the natural habitat zone, when the supply of wild cereals was disrupted for an unknown reason. Should new ex­cavations securely place the earliest domesticates outside the natural habitat zone, such experimentation would have served to ensure a supply of cereals in the immediate vicinity of new settlements.

To summarize, it is possible with a careful assessment of the facts about nutrition to propose behavior­ al sequences that could parsimon­iously explain the facts discovered by archaeologists. Careful analysis of nutritional biochemistry can lead to generalizations about the human diet and its relations to biocultural evolutionary processes. This yields the hypothesis that the early intens­ification in the use of barley and wheat, leading eventually to their

domestication, could have stemmed from the desirability of alcohol-containing beers. Under controlled circumstances, alcohol could pro­vide a cultural and social advantage. Unlike other alcohol-yielding brews that were probably available to people at this time, beer would have also had an enormous biological advantage. It enhanced the original nutritional quality of a readily avail­able plant to a level almost compar­able with that of meat. Finally, we Ieave each reader with one last test of any hypothesis, its plausibility. Given a choice of gruel, bread, or brew, which would you rather have with your next meal?

Traditional Methods of Bread and Beer Making


In the Middle East today, most of the bread eaten by town or city dwellers is made by spe­cialized bakers. Produced in a great variety of forms, these breads are usually relatively thick and resemble European loaf breads in texture and flavor. Traditional flat breads are, however, still made by village housewives for their own families. The following recipe is from Iran, but is typical of breads produced from Turkey to India, usually on a domed metal plate over an open fire (Fig. 5). It has been modified for the American kitchen.


1 package active dry yeast

2 cups warm water 1 1/2 tsp. salt

3 cups all-purpose white flour flour for rolling

Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add salt and mix well. Mix in flour and knead using an electric mixer with a dough hook or by hand for 10 minutes. Cover with a damp cloth and let dough rise for 2 hours. Divide the dough into 20 equal size balls. Roll as thin as possible and place on a cookie sheet that has been warmed and sprinkled with flour. Bake for 1 minute in a 500° oven. Serve hot, or cool for a few minutes and store in an airtight container. Can be easily reheated in a toaster. (Traditionally, lavash is freshened by sprinkling it with water.) (Ghanoonparvar 1982)


The production of beers in Africa today has been studied by Rebecca Huss-Ashmore, who has collected detailed recipes for brewing. The processes used in making unfiltered sorghum beers with properties quite similar to beers made of barley are remarkably simple. They do not require ela­borate technology, although consid­erable knowledge is necessary to carry out the process successfully. In the mid-1950s, when traditional beers were still very popular, the average amount consumed by the Sotho people was two liters per person per day.

Joala, Strong Bantu (Sotho) Beer

Use 1-2 parts maize to 1 part sorghum. Place all or part of the sorghum in a pot of water. Leave it until it starts to sprout. Then spread it out to dry in the sun on mats or sacks. It should be in a very thin layer. Turn it frequently to make sure it dries thoroughly and doesn’t mold. This is the malt.

Put the rest of the grain in hot water, enough to make a thin gruel. Leave it to set overnight, or until it sours. It may take up to 2 days if the weather is cool. Then boil the sour gruel for approximately 2 hours. At this stage, the mixture is a sour porridge called setoto, which can be drunk. To make joala, cool the setoto and add the malted sorghum (usually ground first on a stone). (To speed up this second fermen­tation, modern housewives add dried yeast at this point.) Leave for several days in a large pot or bucket. The mixture should become sparkly and noticeably alcoholic. It is usually filtered through a sieve or a woven grass bag before drinking.

Cite This Article

Katz, Solomon H. and Voigt, Mary M.. "Bread and Beer." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 2 (July, 1986): -. Accessed April 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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