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Beer vs. Bread as Origins of Civilization — Beer vs. Bread
barley soda

Beer vs. Bread? But I Like Both!

by Greg I. Hamilton on November 10, 2009

Once upon a time we were nomadic beings with opposable digits, roaming the earth for food. We thumbed our noses at lesser mammals but they couldn’t thumb us back, so we became lonely. Next we sought something higher to thumb our noses at … and thus began civilization.

The dilemma of “beer or bread” is an ongoing debate that makes anthropologists more interesting than our normal chatter. This much we know, or think we do: mankind started settling into sedentary life around 9,000 B.C., give or take a few millennia. Hunting and gathering wasn’t a bad way to accumulate the calories of sustenance people needed to survive, but settling down provided access to crops, specifically grains, which offered two important new perks: bread and beer.

The bread camp argues that the first rudimentary loaves provided a reliable food source to last through those brutal winters, dramatically helping survival rates. This, they say, was the reason people settled down and started raising crops and livestock.

The beer camp says life was nasty, brutish, and short both before and after the dawn of civilization. Some of them contend it is still equally nasty and brutish, but now extended, thanks to medical advances. Beer, they say, provided a respite from the struggles of survival. It offered lonely humans, kings atop their own egocentrically designed animal kingdom, a glimpse of something higher and more mysterious. In other words, they finally got good and drunk and had a little fun.

Of course I’m oversimplifying here, or perhaps utterly vandalizing, a long-respected academic debate. This blog— and this introductory entry— is really more a characterization of the tug-of-war within my own head: sustenance vs. transcendence, work vs. play, vegetables vs. dessert.

I’m not the first to set aside my 3-D eyeballs in order to try out this 2-dimensional outlook. The late Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist who never wore jeans, is arguably the first thinker to turn his social science into a binary art. Most of his work might seem too baffling for a casual read, for instance a CNN tribute a few days ago said his approach “makes difficult concepts more complicated, but also softens them and makes them more comprehensible.” If that makes any sense to you then you’re ready for his most influential work, The Raw and the Cooked.

Levi-Strauss contributed a fascinating arsenal of tools that we anthropologists now use to dissect and overanalyze the human condition. In essence he argued that there was wisdom to be gained by breaking down our culture (and really all reality) into its constituent dichotomies. Food is either raw or cooked. You are either grounded or airborne. People are either male or female.

Ask your neighborhood hermaphrodite: there are certainly limitations if you think this was meant to sum up all of life in one algorithm. It wasn’t. It’s merely a pair of 2-D glasses you can wear into this 3-D film we call life. Beer versus Bread is a pair of such spectacles. It may share with you a little glimpse of my world as a 15-year marketing professional, 5-year freelance writer, and 37-year human-in-progress.

Early, humble beginnings: a bowl of mush in a mud hut
A perfect sphere, perfectly clear, in a mess of gray gloppy porridge
The first bubble in the world’s first beer
In eons to come, from Cairo to Compton
Souring livers, fertilizing epiphany
One tiny bubble: potion or poison?
—by me, 2002

Claude Lévi-Strauss, the father of modern anthropology, died on October 30, 2009 at 100 years old. As a small tribute, here are his own words from 1955:

The world began without the human race and will certainly end without it.
—Claude Lévi-Strauss

I’ll drink to that. Thanks for reading. Cheers,
Greg

Photo by SteamboatDigs (a.k.a. yours truly)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mom January 5, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Just give me a big homemade cinnamon roll!!
GP

Reply

2 samuel merritt December 10, 2009 at 9:10 am

Nice post Greg. Enjoyed reading it a lot. You know what side of the debate I’m on.

Have you read the book Catching Fire yet? Thought you might enjoy.

Cheers and all the best.

Reply

3 Greg I. Hamilton December 10, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Glad you enjoyed it! I see from your website (CivilizationOfBeer.com) that you’re responsible for bringing craft beer in cans to MoMA’s sculpture garden. If that’s not the work of a kindred spirit I don’t know what is. Bravo.

Haven’t read Catching Fire (by Richard Wrangham) yet, but will seek it out: looks great. Not to be confused with the teen sci-fi sequel of the same title! Keep up the good work, Sam. Cheers, GIH

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