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How Booze Gave Rise to Civilization

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It’s not difficult to argue that agriculture is the single greatest technological innovation that humans ever adopted. Without the nutrition that it lent us, our numbers wouldn’t have thrived as they have. The carrying capacity for non-intensive agriculture was around 6 billion, which allowed the estimated population of 5 million to explode. With greater numbers comes a greater number of geniuses and innovators born. These people accelerate humanity faster and further. And here we are today. One can also argue, as Dr. Jared Diamond has, that adopting agriculture was the greatest mistake in the history of humanity, as it gave rise to epidemic disease, class disparity, poverty and just about every other social malady around, since without society you can’t have social maladies.

Regardless of where you sit on the fence concerning civilization, there’s one question that’s so far remained unanswered: Exactly why did people begin taming plants into crops? Conventional wisdom would say that people adopted agriculture because it was easier than hunting and gathering. Not so. Studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies show they have exponentially more leisure time than modern humans in civilization. Ask any farmhand how easy his life is while he’s feeding cows at 4:30 on a January morning.

You can see how the door is left widely open enough for a guy like Patrick McGovern to assert his hypothesis. McGovern pioneered the field of biomolecular archaeology, which amounts largely to examining the trace contents of things like ancient pottery shards. From his extensive examinations, McGovern has time and time again turned up evidence of alcoholic beverages. In fact, he’s found traces of fermented alcohol in shards that date back 9,000 years. So McGovern’s posited that humans adopted agriculture not because our early ancestors had some tremendous foreknowledge that it would benefit us and expand us as a species, but because we really, really liked to drink.

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