How Long Have Humans Been Drinking Alcohol?

Old wine bottles kept in a cave.
Old wine bottles kept in a cave.

For centuries alcohol has been a prime mover of human culture, fueling the development of art, language, and religion. But for how long have humans been drinking? Who came up with the idea of alcohol? These are fundamental questions that have often been asked. Several theories have emerged explaining the genesis of alcohol drinking. While some of the theories have scientific backing, the majority of the theories are linked to the cultural way of life of the early man.

Archaeological Record

Human ancestors may have discovered alcohol over ten million years ago, long before the modern booze brewing began. The chemical analysis of vessels discovered from the Neolithic village of Jiahu in northern China reveal traces of alcohol that may have been absorbed and stored by the jars. The chemical analysis indicated that the fermented substance was made out of grapes, honey, and berries and may have been produced between 7000 and 6650 BC. The Sumerian and Egyptian documents dating back to about 2100 BC mention medicinal uses of alcohol. The Hebrew Bible also recommends giving alcohol to the perishing. In classical Greek, the wine was an important part of breakfast, while Roman citizens included alcohol in their meals beginning in the first century. Documents from the Middle Age indicate that alcohol of low strength was an everyday drink in Europe.

Distilled Alcohol

The first evidence of distillation was obtained from a Greek alchemist in the 1st century AD. The Persian and Arab scientists used distillation in their alchemical experiments. The distillation of alcohol in China began around the 1st century during the Han Dynasty. However, the first certain and dated evidence of alcohol distillation dates back to 12th century, from the School of Salerno. In Medieval Europe, the consumption of alcoholic drinks was linked to poor public sanitation and was considered a way of avoiding water-borne diseases. The concept of distillation of alcohol was considered the cheapest and safest way of killing disease-causing microorganisms.

Scientific Discovery and Modern Consumption

To learn more about the ability of human ancestors to digest alcohol, scientists studied the genes found on a digestive enzyme known as ADH4. The enzymes were obtained from the intestines of primates. The results of the scientific research suggested that the early human beings had the ability to break down alcoholic substances. The first model of the evolution of alcohol drinking indicates that alcoholic substances entered the human body after human beings began storing food leading to the development of the fermentation of food about 10,000 years ago. The early modern church (15th to 19th century) considered alcohol a gift from God to be used moderately and for enjoyment, but not for drunkenness. The production and distribution of spirit spread slowly and only became popular in the 18th century. Sparkling champagne made its debut in the 17th century. The overabundance of corn, especially in America, led to hearty drinking tradition which was characterized by many types of alcohol and heavy drinking.


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