With all the celebratory drinking going on over the holidays, it’s interesting to consider how and why people began consuming alcohol. After all, alcohol is a toxin, as anyone who has ever had a hangover can attest – so, what motivated humans to ingest, much less deliberately manufacture it?
Evolutionary biologist Matthew Carrigan has found the answer 10 million years in the past, before ‘humans’ had even been evolved. As their forest habitats were being affected by climate changes, animals began eating fallen fruit off the forest floor. To safely eat fermented fruit and use its sugars, vitamins, and proteins for energy, animals developed enzymes to break down the alcohol’s calories. By 10,000 BC, humans – the evolutionary descendants of these animals – had started fermenting beverages for themselves, unknowingly relying on the enzyme ADH4 to allow them to drink.
Over time, alcoholic beverages became appreciated throughout the world for a wide variety of uses in addition to pleasure. Firstly, they were actually a far safer means of quenching thirst than water, since water was unfiltered and lacked alcohol’s microorganism-killing antioxidants.
High levels of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and vitamins also made alcoholic beverages valuable nutritional supplements, and their medicinal and therapeutic uses trace as far back as Sumer, 2000 BC. Ancient Egyptians revered Osiris for bestowing the world with wine and beer (which was considered a life necessity), included alcohol in their offerings to gods, and stored drinks in tombs to be enjoyed in the afterlife. In ancient China, “alcohol was considered a spiritual (mental) food rather than a material (physical) food” (Hanson); drinking took place during memorials, ceremonies, and celebrations and before battles and even executions. Alcohol was embraced for practical, pleasurable, and ritual purposes worldwide.
Even though alcohol was prominent in all early cultures, drinking in moderation seems to have always been the norm. The adverse effects of drunkenness were recognized as shameful, if not dangerous, and alcohol was considered too precious to be irreverently imbibed in excess. Given how widespread drinking and intoxication is today, one might be tempted to say that those principles were lost to history – but that really doesn’t seem to be the case. Fact is, whenever drunkenness is seen in the media, be it in fiction or the news, it’s portrayed as something to be ridiculed, pitied, or learned from.
Modern society still values moderation, but we focus on the consequences of inebriation rather than the ‘preciousness’ of alcohol. Instead of being told to cherish drinks as holy gifts, we get reminded that the penalties of getting drunk range from making a regrettable decision to ending up in the hospital. We also have more sympathy for alcoholics, though, recognizing them as sufferers of a disease rather than vile sinners. Today’s variety and availability of alcohol has developed with an important understanding of how to take advantage of it responsibly.
So, drink up! Or don’t! There is neither shame in sobriety nor in controlled drinking. If you take advantage of those prehistoric enzymes and the delicious beverages that have been perfected over the course of history, just don’t take it too far. Alcohol is a toxin, but it’s a very enjoyable one in the right quantities.
Wishing everyone a wonderful New Year, regardless of whether or not you’re guzzling champagne,
‘80 drinks’ graphic credit: wineinvestment.com, Joe Shervell
Barclay, Eliza – Our Ability To Digest Alcohol May Have Been Key To Our Survival
Hanson, David J. – History of Alcohol and Drinking Around the World
Maynard, Lynnsay (NPR) – What Would Jesus Drink? A Class Exploring Ancient Wines Asks