Thursday, July 10, 2008

Survival of the Sudsiest
The development of civilization depended on urbanization, which depended on beer. To understand why, consult Steven Johnson's marvelous 2006 book, "The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World." It is a great scientific detective story about how a horrific cholera outbreak was traced to a particular neighborhood pump for drinking water. And Johnson begins a mind-opening excursion into a related topic this way:

"The search for unpolluted drinking water is as old as civilization itself. As soon as there were mass human settlements, waterborne diseases like dysentery became a crucial population bottleneck. For much of human history, the solution to this chronic public-health issue was not purifying the water supply. The solution was to drink alcohol."

True enough, as far as that goes (I like this quote as well: "Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties.")

I've posted several articles regarding beer production in ancient times, largely because beer was rather ubiquitous in ancient times, but also no doubt because beer is also rather ubiquitous among the fraternity of archaeologists (and until fairly recently with yours truly, the 'until' being a rather sad development). Some have even argued that much of the development of agriculture was due to the need to produce more beer. I even recall some discussion that much of the bread-baking facilities in Egypt were actually devoted to the production of 'bread' to brew beer from.

I can't comment on the genetic stuff Will expounds upon; I've never come across any references to it. I do have a faint memory tickle of some article or other commenting on the lack of alcohol in the New World and whether it was real or not. Seems like an interesting topic to do some minor research (i.e., web search) on.