Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts

Khalid Elhassan - June 27, 2023

Civilization is derived from the Latin civilis (“civil”) and civitas (“city”). It could not have started until our stone age ancestors learned how to grow grains, and traded their hunter-gatherer lifestyle for that of settled farmers. The reason the first farmers made that transition is surprising: they liked beer. Grain is beer’s key ingredient, so they settled down to tend their grain fields, and have all the beer they wanted. Below are twenty five things about that and other interesting facts about the path taken to settle down, and set the stage for civilization.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Stone age hunter gatherers. Ancient Origins

Does Civilization Owe its Existence to Alcohol?

For millions of years, ever since the first proto-humans came down from the trees and walked upright, our species has kept body and soul together as hunter gatherers. Even after we evolved into Homo sapiens, we continued to collect our food from the abundance of nature as hunter gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, some humans began to domesticate animals and plants, and switched from hunter gatherers to a settled life of farmers and agriculturalists. What they did caught on. Within a relatively short time in historic terms, most of humanity settled down and adopted agriculture. Hunter-gatherers were reduced to a tiny minority, banished by the far more numerous settled farmers to the least desirable lands. Why did the first farmers take up farming, though?

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
A Neolithic settlement. Pinterest

For generations, it was assumed that it was because of bread. Some bright stone age folk learned how to cultivate grains, and after a lot of experimentation, figured out how to grind them into flour, mix that into dough, and make bread. Bread was a miracle food: a complete meal in one tasty lump. On top of that, the grains from which bread was made could last for years after they were harvested. So people began to till, plant, and weed in an effort to grow enough to feed their group year-round. Grains can also be turned into beer, and an intriguing theory posits that people first grew grain not because they wanted bread, but because they wanted booze. Is it possible that the roots of settlement and eventual civilization lay in beer, not bread?

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Neolithic family making bread. Science Photo Library

Which Came First, Bread or Beer?

Even before we evolved into modern Homo sapiens, our distant proto-human ancestors had experienced the intoxicating effects of alcohol from fermented grapes and berries. Early humans probably climbed trees to pick berries, liked their sweet taste, and began to collect them. After a few days, fermentation kicked in, and juice at the bottom of any container that held the fermenting grapes or berries was transformed into a wine with low alcohol content. Thus, humanity accidentally discovered how to make one of its favorite alcoholic beverages. Beer was also discovered accidentally.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Neolithic beer drinkers. Daily Mail

For generations, scholars have assumed a beer discovery timeline that began with the invention of agriculture, after which we settled down and began to grow grain crops. Then somewhere along the line, somebody noticed that if the sourdough starter used to make bread was left out for too long, it started to bubble, and produced an interesting liquid: beer. However, new archaeological discoveries have challenged that assumption, and gave rise to the Beer Before Bread hypothesis. As seen below, it posits that hunter gatherers brewed beer thousands of years before the transition to permanent agricultural settlements.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Rock mortars in Raqefet Cave, used to make beer in the Stone Age. Wikimedia

The Love of Beer Made the First Farmers Settle Down to Farm

Stanford University researchers have recently found evidence of an extensive beer brewing operation, dating back to 13,000 years ago, in Raqefet Cave near Haifa, Israel. As Professor Li Liu, the research team’s leader put it: “This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world“. The people who brewed that beer, the Natufians, were hunter-gatherers and not settled farmers. Indeed, their beer brewing predates by millennia the earliest known permanent settlement, and predates most estimates of when bread was first made. That discovery lends supports to the notion that beer, not bread, is what set the stage for civilization. They wanted to drink beer, and for that, they needed grain. In order to have a steady supply of grain for beer, they needed to settle down to tend their fields.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Microscopic traces of the starches found in the 13,000-year-old beer brewing operation found in an Israeli cave. PhysOrg

Beer was a key motivation for why our species settled down into permanent farming communities that gave rise to civilization. Indeed, the love of booze might have been a key motivation for why hunter-gatherers settled down to farm, not just in the Middle East, but all over the world. The first cultivated crops, such as wheat and barley in the Middle East, or rice in the Yangtze River Valley, are great for alcoholic drinks, whether beer or rice wine. The desire to get drunk is an ancient behavior. People liked the psychoactive effects of getting sozzled: among other things, it relieved stress and anxiety. Also, drinking with strangers lowered inhibitions, reduced everybody’s ability to deliberately lie and deceive, and thus made people more trusting and trustworthy. That enhanced trust improved the ability to cooperate, and created – or strengthened – bonds with others.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Stone Age hunter-gatherers. History Network

Our Hunter-Gatherer Origins

The history of how beer helped create human civilization begins about 12,000 years ago, when some Neolithic (“late stone age”) humans took up agriculture. They ditched the wandering hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and took up animal husbandry, followed soon thereafter by farming. That triggered such a radical change in society and how humans lived that it came to be known as the “Neolithic (or Agricultural) Revolution”. For millions of years, our distant proto-human and human ancestors hunted animals, scavenged their carcasses, or ate wild plants and fruits. Then the hunter gatherer lifestyle followed since our species started its evolution into humans was abandoned. It was replaced by permanent settlements, out of which cities and civilization grew.

Unlike our (mostly) domesticated nourishment sources today, the plants and animals that sustained our ancestors were wild. From the earliest hominids, our ancestors neither controlled nor attempted to influence the planting or birth of their food sources. All things considered, it was a relatively easy lifestyle. For millions of years, human population densities were pretty low compared to the food resources available to feed them. Other than periods of crisis caused by draughts or other natural disasters, our hunter-gatherer ancestors seldom needed to put in more than an hour or two of work each day to secure enough calories to survive, or even thrive. Indeed, anthropologists today calculate that on average, hunter-gatherers such as the Kalahari Desert Bushmen spend only about fifteen hours each week to obtain food.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
A cave painting depiction of a hunt during the late Paleolithic. Pinterest

The Shift From the Hunter Gatherer Lifestyle to Farming

Kalahari Bushmen spend so little time gathering food despite living in some of the most dreary and inhospitable terrain on Earth – a literal desert. By contrast, hunter-gatherers throughout most of history had free run of the lushest and most hospitable and resource-rich terrain on the planet. Nourishment was there just for the taking, from a wide variety of plants and animals. In the era of modern civilization, our diet is heavy on carbohydrates, such as wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes. Our hunter gatherer ancestors had a better balanced and more varied diet, with plenty of protein, as well as fruits. They hunted and gathered for a brief period, and the rest of their waking hours were free time to spend as they saw fit, to socialize, explore their surroundings, sex each other, or just laze the day away.

An anthropologist once asked a Bushman why his hunter-gatherer band did not settle down and farm like the tribes surrounding the Kalahari Desert. He replied: “Why should we, when there are so many free mongongo nuts in the world?About 10,000 years ago, that relatively carefree idyll changed. Our ancestors were introduced to a new lifestyle that involved backbreaking work from sunup to sundown, taking care of a few plant and animal species. That was the start of the Neolithic Revolution. It eventually saw most humans shift from wild plants and animals as their chief source of sustenance, and rely instead on farm produce and animal husbandry to feed themselves.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Native Americans stampeding a bison herd off a cliff, by Charles Marion Russell. CMR Complete Works

The Hunter-Gatherer Life Was Easy in Many Ways, But Not Always Idyllic

Over the millennia before the rise of civilization, hunter-gatherer communities got better at collecting information about, and understanding, their environments. As that knowledge was passed down the generations, it accumulated. As a result, humans became more skillful at both hunting and gathering, and their impact on their environments steadily grew. Steadily more efficient human hunters steadily placed many animal species, especially the mega fauna – large animals weighing more than 100 pounds – under increasing pressure. It is just a feel good myth that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were greatly in harmony with nature, particularly respected their environments, killed only what they needed, and consumed all that they killed.

In Africa, the mega fauna had evolved alongside humans for hundreds of thousands years – long enough to instinctively fear and run away from us. When early humans left Africa, however, they entered lands teeming with game that was not wary of them. In such bonanza conditions, our ancestors were as wasteful of food as we are today. The first humans to arrive would have frequently killed only to consume the choicest bits, and let the rest of the carcass go to waste. Why eat any but the tastiest parts, when there was seemingly limitless game around? Similarly, our ancestors often adopted wantonly wasteful hunting techniques, such as stampeding entire herds to their death off cliffs. Most of the killed animals’ meat would have spoiled.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
A woolly mammoth hunt. History Students

Before the Rise of Civilization, Our Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors Drove Most Ice Age Big Mammals to Extinction

By the end of the last ice age, roughly 11,500 years ago, most mega fauna around the world, except those in Africa that had evolved to fear us, was extinct. Conventional wisdom used to absolve our hunter gatherer ancestors from responsibility for those extinctions. It was fueled in no small part by “noble savage” mindsets that wanted to believe that our primitive ancestors were gentle environmentalists who respected nature and could do no wrong. Unfortunately, our ancestors were often inclined to be just as selfish, destructive, and shortsighted as we are today. They simply lacked the technology and numbers to wreak as much havoc on their environment, and as quickly, as we can today.

However, within the parameters of their capabilities, our hunter-gatherer ancestors wreaked enough havoc to drive or tip over many species into extinction. That coincided with climate change at the tail end of the Ice Age. It brought floods from melting glaciers, and warmer weather that blighted plant life in many biospheres that had developed in a cooler era. For many humans around the world, that spelled the end of the idyllic conditions that had enabled earlier generations to feast upon seemingly limitless and easily hunted game. Life was about to get tougher.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Kalahari Desert Khoisan hunter-gatherers. The Big Raise

Why Did Humanity Transition to Agriculture?

Why did our distant ancestors make the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of agriculture? Over the millennia, as waves of humans migrated out of Africa and gradually spread around the world, depletion of local resources, especially from overhunting, was easily resolved: move. The solution was often to simply walk a few miles over to the next valley or along a shore or down a river, until they arrived in a new biosphere not yet occupied by other humans.

However, by the end of the Ice Age, circa 11,500 years ago, humans had already moved into and occupied nearly the entire world. Other than some Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, nearly every habitable zone on earth, from the Arctic Circle in the north all the way down to the southern tip of South America, was already inhabited. That ended the option of simply moving over to the next valley when resources in one’s own valley ran low. As seen below, new solutions – ones that set the stage for the rise of civilization – had to be found.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Hunter-gatherers on the move. Genetic Literacy Project

The Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle Ran Into the Wall of Overpopulation

As populations grew, it became more difficult for hunter-gatherers to simply move over to the next valley when they depleted the resources in their own valley. The next valley now probably already had other hunter-gatherers. They were unlikely to welcome another band that wanted to encroach on their territory and use up the resources they needed for their own survival. One possible solution was to violently oust such bands in order to take their place, and many undoubtedly chose that option.

However, violence was not always practical. The neighboring hunter-gatherers might have been more numerous, and even more bloodthirsty in defense of their turf. Another option was to stay put, and resort to more intensive and efficient extraction of resources from the local environment. That often meant hunter gatherers were forced to take a second look at food items that their ancestors, who had lived in times of abundance and plenty, would not have bothered with. Things got hard enough that some communities, driven by hunger, began to experiment with eating grass – wild wheat and barley.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Early dogs were simply tamed wolves. Genetic Literacy Project

The Domestication of Animals Was an Early Step Towards Civilization

The first step on the path to settling down that led to civilization was the domestication of animals. Around the end of the last ice age, Middle Eastern hunters in the mountains of modern Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, started to keep some game animals close at hand. It was a protracted process that began by learning to manage flocks of wild sheep. By then, humans had tamed some particularly friendly wolves. Over succeeding generation, they learned to train and breed them, resulting in the emergence of man’s best friend, the dog.

The knowledge that was gained from the domestication of dogs was tried out on other animals. Such attempts were unsuccessful more often than not, because most animals can at best be tamed as individuals, but not domesticated as a species. However, some animals have behavioral characteristics and social structures that lend themselves to domestication. By carefully exploiting those traits, some hunter-gatherers managed to successfully domesticate goats and sheep, and transformed what had once been herds of wild game into docile flocks.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Iranian ibex, from which goats were domesticated. Encyclopedia Iranica

The Domestication of Sheep

Sheep domestication consisted of a rough and ready systemic breeding of wild flocks. Our ancestors killed off the nastiest rams in nearby herds, and were kind to the rest. It was not a straightforward process, and probably had many ups downs and difficulties – particularly with the rams during mating season. However, it eventually led to wild flocks whose ewes became so gentle and docile that hunters could approach and milk them. Over generations of selective breeding, the wild mountain sheep grew increasingly more gentle, docile, plump and sheepish. The peoples managing those herds were transformed from hunters into shepherds.

The sheep domestication template was used with other animals. At roughly the same time, a strain of Iranian ibex was transformed into today’s goats. Around 9000 BC, wild boars in northern China and today’s Turkey were domesticated into pigs. By 8000 BC, wild aurochs had been domesticated into cattle in the Middle East and India. Similar processes were used around the world to domesticate water buffalo, yaks, horses, donkeys, camels, reindeer, llama, alpaca, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigeons, and other staples of animal husbandry.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Rich British eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild, and his zebra-drawn carriage. Research Gate

Can Zebras be Domesticated Like Horses?

It has long been posited that zebras cannot be domesticated like horses. In the nineteenth century, some eccentrics hitched zebras to carriages and tried to use them as beasts of burden and transport. Those were technically attempts to tame zebras, not to domesticate them. Domestication is not the same as taming. A circus tiger that does tricks is not domesticated, but tamed. Domestication involves selective breeding across generations to produce a genetic strain of docile and useful animals. As to zebra domestication, one of mankind’s most useful animals, the domesticated horse, descends from a wild ancestor similar in many aspects to zebras. Wild horses were as jittery, combative, and hostile as zebras. Still, people in the Steppe of modern Ukraine, Russia, and Central Asia domesticated them. It just took them a long time to get to horses that could be ridden and used as draft animals.

That was fine, though: they were not initially interested in riding horses or using them as draft animals. They simply wanted to eat them. For that purpose, both pre-domesticated horses and modern zebras are domesticable. Wild horses were a major food source for societies that lived in their natural range. At some point, thousands of years after the domestication of cattle, somebody realized that horses and cattle share some important traits. Both live in herds, and both submit to a dominant member. To control cattle, you control that dominant member. So at some point somebody figured why not try to control the dominant member of a horse herd? It probably took a lot of trial and error and improvisation, and a process that lasted multiple generations before it was perfected.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Wild horses. New York Times

Horses Were Originally Domesticated Not for Riding, But for Eating

Eventually, humans domesticated horses to the same extent that cattle are domesticated. They had herds of horses that could be controlled and culled for food just like cattle. The tamer mares, which grew ever tamer with time because of selective breeding, could even get milked. In many ways, horses were preferable to cattle and sheep in the harsh Steppe winter. One has to store feed for cattle and sheep over the winter, because they don’t graze when snow covers the grass. Sheep will try, but the snow and ice hurt their mouths and tear up their lips, and they will eventually die. Cows won’t even try, and will simply starve to death even with grass beneath the snow. Horses, by contrast, will use their hooves to move the snow to get at the grass beneath, and will break frozen pond surfaces to get at water.

It took thousands of years from when horses were first domesticated as a food source until somebody – probably as a lark – got on the back of one and rode it. By then, because of many generations’ worth of selective breeding, the domesticated horse herds had grown steadily more docile. Eventually, some individuals were amenable enough to let somebody get on their back. They had also become docile enough to let themselves get harnessed to carts as draft animals – something that had already been done with domesticated asses. The same process that worked to domesticate horses might work to domesticate zebras. Like horses and cattle, zebras share traits that lend themselves to domestication in that they live in herds, and are innately submissive to a dominant member. Control that dominant member, and you control the herd.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Zebras. International Fund for Animal Welfare

Domestication of Wild Animals vs Taming Them

Nineteenth century attempts to domesticate zebras were gimmicks – mere taming attempts. Any wild animal can be tamed, even tigers and lions. That is not the same as domestication. As seen above, domestication is a protracted process over many generations to transform wild animals into ones that can coexist with and be controlled by humans. Taming a zebra sufficiently to harness it to a cart does not domesticate it. We cannot take a wild zebra and expect to turn it into a domesticated horse-equivalent. Not even with a few generations of selective breeding. What we can do is take a herd of zebras, control their movement within a specific range, and cull them as a source of food. Over multiple generations, with selective breeding, killing the more jittery members before they mate and allowing the more docile ones to breed, we will steadily get more docile zebras.

Eventually, at some point, hundreds or thousands of years in the future, we might get zebras that are as docile as modern horses. However, there is no economic justification for such a long term investment in zebra domestication. Horses were not originally domesticated because people thought that someday, thousands of years in the future, their distant descendants will ride horses or use them to pull war chariots or wagons. They had an immediate utilitarian incentive: food. They wanted to eat horses, just like they ate sheep and cattle. Domesticating and herding them meant they could eat horses with less time and effort than it took to hunt them in the wild. Absent a similar economic and utilitarian incentive to domesticate and herd zebras, they will probably never get domesticated.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Early farming. Bob Nicholls

The Switch From Hunter-Gatherers to Farmers Created Elites

Conventional wisdom, especially in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, saw the Neolithic Revolution as a tale of human progress fueled by a growth in human intellect. As evolution made our ancestors steadily smarter, some of them presumably had a “EUREKA!” moment. They discovered how to cultivate wheat, then cheerfully abandoned the hunter-gatherer life and settled down as happy farmers. However, hunter-gatherers actually had an easier lifestyle than farmers, and it took them less time and effort to feed themselves. Not just feed themselves, but feed themselves a richer, more varied, and more nutritionally balanced diet than farmers. As a result, most hunter-gatherers’ waking hours were spent not at work, but on leisure activities. By contrast, agriculture left farmers with more difficult lives.

Farmers had to work harder in order to lead a less satisfying life than hunter-gatherers, and ate a worse diet as well. When they got good enough at farming to produce steady surpluses, the surpluses led to the emergence of a civilization and its elites – kings, priests, and nobles. They lived well off the farmers’ toil even as they derided them as peasants, and frequently reduced them to serfs. Still, the long term consequences of the Neolithic Revolution were great for mankind. From a global human population of only a few million 10,000 years ago, we now number eight billion, have filled every habitable niche on the planet, and are poised to venture into the stars. By evolutionary standards, our species has been extremely successful, and the foundation of that evolutionary success was agriculture.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Wild wheat. Crop Wild Relatives

Was the Shift to Farming Forced Upon Our Ancestors?

Our distant forebears who switched from hunter-gatherers to farmers did not do so as a noble sacrifice for future generations, because they knew it would benefit descendants thousands of years in the future. They did not voluntarily give up the easy hunter-gatherer life and take up back breaking farm work because it meant distant offspring would someday land on the moon or surf the internet on smart phones. Soon after some Middle Eastern mountain bands took the first steps towards animal husbandry with the domestication of sheep and goats, hard times reduced some hunter-gatherers to eating grass. Specifically, wild wheat and barley.

Such grass species were probably initially viewed as particularly good grazing for the newly domesticated flocks. Then at some point, some people experimented with wild grass recipes. Some trial and error followed, that probably involved boiling wild wheat and barley entire. It was eventually discovered that only the seeds were edible, while the stems were best left to the sheep and goats. More experimentation likely involved boiled wheat and barley seeds – an improvement over boiled stems. Yet more experimentation, in which the grains were ground, mixed, and baked, produced a recipe for bread.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Early farming. TES Educational

The Accidental Discovery of Planting

When bread was discovered – even the early dense and unleavened loaves – it must have seemed like a miracle food. What had been useless wild grasses that had only been good for grazing, now offered an entire meal in a single lump. It meant the territory where those wild grasses grew could now sustain more people than had hitherto been imagined. Initially, wild wheat and barley seeds were simply collected while in season and taken back to temporary campsites. Over the years, some of those gathered seeds inevitably fell near those campsites. They seeded and transformed the vicinity into new and increasingly denser wheat or barley fields. Eventually, somebody figured out the link between dropping some seeds on the earth, and the emergence some months later of new plants with many more seeds.

Thus was born farming. An added incentive to tend the miracle wild grasses was the durability of their seeds: once gathered, a kernel of wheat, for example, could last for years. That was way longer than most other hunter-gatherer dietary staples, such as meat, fish, or fruits, which had to be consumed soon after they were collected, or they would spoil. So people began to till, plant, and weed, as part-time farmers to raise enough grain to supplement their hunter-gatherer diet. Over the generations, the farming that had started as a part time gig for the hunter-gatherers who had first discovered its secrets, eventually became a full-time occupation for their descendants.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Wheat fields. Unsplash

Did We Domesticate Wheat, or Did Wheat Domesticate Us?

In his international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari advances a provocative argument about our main staple crops such as wheat and rice. To wit, that it was actually the plants that domesticated humans, not the other way around. Take wheat, for example, and examine it from the perspective of the basic evolutionary criterion of survival and reproduction. Wheat was just a wild grass confined to a small range in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. Within a few millennia – a blink of an eye in evolutionary time scales – it was growing all over the world.

Few species have ever achieved such growth within such a short time. Wheat went from insignificant to globe-spanning ubiquitous by manipulating humans. Humanity had been living a relatively easy hunter-gatherer life until, about 10,000 years ago, it began to invest more and more time and effort into wheat cultivation. Within a few millennia, humans around the world were spending most of their time from sunrise to sunset to care for wheat plants. As seen below, it was no easy task, as wheat is pretty finicky.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Early farmers during the Neolithic Revolution. Time Toast

The Triumph of Wheat Set the Stage for Human Settlement, and Eventual Civilization

Wheat is a demanding plant. It is thirsty, so early farmers humans had to lug water or dig channels to bring water to it. Wheat is defenseless against critters that like to eat it, so humans defended it against rabbits, locusts, and deer. It likes nutrients, so humans collected animal feces to scatter it over wheat fields. Wheat gets sick, so humans had to keep a constant watch for blight and worms. It does not like to share its space with other plants, so humans spent hours stooping over wheat fields to remove weeds. Wheat does not like rocks or pebbles, so humans wrecked their backs to clear wheat fields.

Our bodies evolved to climb trees or chase after gazelles in the African Savannah. Evolution did not create a human body intended to bend over wheat fields to clear, weed, hoe, and water them, or perform many of the other myriad tasks required to care for that plant. Yet, wheat convinced us to do just that, and accept the resultant hernias, slipped disks, plus neck, knee, back, and foot pains as an acceptable price to pay in order to cultivate it. Seen from that perspective, the argument that it was wheat that actually domesticated humans, not humans who domesticated wheat, does not seem so farfetched. The very word “domesticate” is derived from the Latin root domus, or house. Wheat convinced our ancestors to give up hunter-gathering, and settle down in houses near their farms so they could be closer to wheat.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Neolithic farmers. Malveus

Early Farmers Did Great, but Subsequent Ones, Not So Much

Farming – particularly the early cultivation of grains such as wheat, barley, and rice, created a caloric bonanza. The result was a period of abundance for the early farmers. Once the early farmers had figured out how to seed, plant, and tend their fields, they often ended up with more grain than they could consume. Especially in the transition period when farming was only done part-time, and harvested grains merely supplemented the diets of those who split their time between farming and hunter gathering.

Because harvested grains did not spoil easily, and could thus be stored for long periods of time, early farmers enjoyed a period of unprecedented caloric surpluses. Grain cultivation allowed farmers to extract more calories per acre from cultivable land than hunter-gatherers could from a similarly sized patch. That spelled abundance at first – at least in calories, if not in dietary variety. However, more calories, combined with the now sedentary lifestyle of the farmers, meant that they could raise and feed bigger families. So they went ahead and did just that. Eventually, however, the additional calories from farming went to feed the new hungry mouths.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Hunter-gatherers on the move. Pinterest

Farming Gave Rise to Humanity’s First Baby Boom

Hunter-gatherers’ mobile lifestyle means that their women cannot care for or carry more than a single child that is too young to walk on its own and keep up with the rest of the group. As a result, hunter-gatherer women have a low birth rate. They must wait until their latest child is strong enough to walk on its own, before they give birth to another that has to be carried. Farmers in settled communities have no such restrictions. New children can be cared for by elderly relatives while their mothers toil in the fields.

Indeed, because farming is so labor intensive, farmers throughout history have tried to birth as many children as possible, as quickly as possible. They needed to keep ahead of high child mortality, and also, to put the surviving offspring to work. Eventually, much of the surplus went to feed the growing settled farmer populations. What had started off as abundance for the early farmers reached an equilibrium that left many of their descendants barely eking a living from the land.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts

When Grains Became the Source of Most of Our Calories

Modern civilization allows humans to enjoy more abundance, affluence, and security, than in any previous period in the history of our species. Because our prosperity is built upon foundations created in the Neolithic Revolution, particularly the transition to settled farming, it is easy to assume that the transition was beneficial at the time. It was not. Take our first major staple crop, wheat. It did not offer a better diet. We are an omnivorous species that evolved to thrive on the wide variety of food offered by the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Grains made up only a tiny fraction of our diet before we became farmers, but they soon formed almost the whole of most humans’ caloric consumption. Also, the grains-based diet was often poor in minerals and vitamins, and was hard to digest.

Moreover, because flour was not as finely ground and refined as today, it ground our ancestors’ teeth to nubs. Indeed, the transition to a grains-based diet reduced both the average life expectancy and the physical heights of farmers compared to their hunter-gatherer ancestors. Average height for men went from 5’10” in the hunter-gatherer era to 5’5″ after our ancestors took up farming. Women’s height decreased from 5’5″ to 5’1″. It took about 10,000 years – until the late twentieth century – for the average human height to return to what it had been before the Neolithic Revolution. Farming was also risky. Hunter-gatherers relied on dozens of species to survive. If times got hard and one or more species grew scarce, they could eat more of other species that were still around.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Stone Age warfare. The Humanist

Farming Made Us Way More Violent

Unlike hunter-gatherers, farmers got most of their calories from a few staple crops, and sometimes from just a single crop, such as wheat, rice, or potatoes. If that crop failed, famine frequently followed, and killed farmers by the thousands, or even millions. Farming also led to more violence. Farmers depend for their survival on the crops planted in their fields. They thus have far more of an incentive to defend their territory hunter-gatherers, who often can simply move on to avoid violence from interlopers. By contrast, to move and abandon their fields often meant death from starvation for farmers. Conflicts between settled farmers and interlopers thus led to greater violence than humans had ever experienced before. To gauge the likely levels of violence in early farming communities, anthropologists studied primitive agricultural communities in New Guinea. They discovered than in some agricultural tribes, violence accounts for 35 percent of male deaths.

It is even worse in some primitive agricultural tribes in South America, where 50 percent of all adults, of both sexes, meet a violent death at the hands of other humans. In addition, farming set the stage for civilization, and civilization eventually led to the subjugation of most farmers by new elites. Chiefs, priests, and warriors who formed an aristocratic caste, seized the surpluses produced in farms, and reduced the farmers to a caste of downtrodden peasants and serfs. That inequality and injustice was the foundation upon which civilization was built. While civilization was and is generally a good thing, it should not be forgotten that it was built upon the often unwilling, aching, and sometimes flogged, backs of the soil’s tillers. Those downtrodden farmers were the vast majority of humanity throughout most of human history.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Sumerians, the world’s oldest civilization. Wikimedia

How Farming Set the Stage for Civilization

The Neolithic Revolution came at a high price, particularly for the farmers who actually tilled the fields for thousands of years. However, there is no doubt that its impact on our species – although not on the rest of the planet – has been highly beneficial. By the evolutionary criterion of success – measured by a species’ survival and reproduction – we have been extremely successful in the past 10,000 years. Our population went from about five million worldwide at the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution, to eight billion today.

That success is based almost entirely on our distant ancestors’ transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to that of settled farmers. That made an increasingly larger population – and the civilization that followed – possible, as agricultural food production led to more intense extraction of calories from the land. That supported denser populations, which in turn supported larger sedentary communities. However, the growth in population was not immediate, as the potential growth was offset for quite some time by an increase in warfare and diseases.

Civilization Exists Because of Beer & Other Prehistory Facts
Astronaut on the Moon. Smithsonian Magazine

The Straight Line From Farming to Inequalities

Over the generations, humans developed stronger resistance to diseases, and the gap between births and deaths gradually widened. As civilization commenced and our ancestors inched their way towards governments that reduced violence within communities – cumulatively deadlier than wars – the population growth sped up even further. It was not all good, though. Surplus food allowed for inequalities that have been with us since the dawn of civilization: the emergence of social elites, such as warrior aristocrats and priests. They came to dominate their communities, seized a lion’s share of the resources, monopolized decision making, and laid the foundations for government and religion.

The surplus food also allowed for the emergence of specialists, such as potters, toolmakers, and builders. They were able to subsist by trading their skills and services for the food produced by farmers. That in turn led to a technological revolution that started with simple pottery, and gradually accumulated until we arrived at our present breakneck pace of technological and scientific advances. For good and ill, where we are today, and where we are headed, would not have been possible without the Neolithic Revolution, history’s greatest revolution.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Anthony, David W. – The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppe Shaped the Modern World (2007)

Barker, Graeme – The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers? (2006)

Business Insider, July 19th, 2015 – Forget Maserati: This Banker Literally Had the Most ‘Wild’ Rides

Christian, David – Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (2018)

Diamond, Jared – Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997)

Discover Magazine, May, 1987 – The Worst Mistake In the History of the Human Race

Encyclopedia Britannica – Neolithic Revolution

Encyclopedia Britannica – Origin of Horse Domestication

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Guardian, The, December 5th, 2017 – How Neolithic Farming Sowed the Seeds of Modern Inequality 10,000 Years Ago

Harari, Yuval Noah – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)

Harari, Yuval Noah – Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015)

History Collection – The Recent Egyptian Archaeological Discoveries are Rewriting History

Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 21, October 2018 – Fermented Beverage and Food Storage in 13,000 Year Old Stone Mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel: Investigating Natufian Ritual Feasting

National Geographic – Domestication

National Geographic Genographic Project – The Development of Agriculture: The Farming Revolution

PhysOrg – New Evidence Supports the Hypothesis that Beer May Have Been Motivation to Cultivate Cereals

Salon – Drinking Culture: Why Some Thinkers Believe Human Civilization Owes its Existence to Alcohol

Science Alert, November 24th, 2015 – Ancient DNA Reveals How Agriculture Changed Our Height, Digestion, and Skin Color

Slingerland, Edward – Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (2021)