Beer through the Ages: The Role of Beer in Shaping Our Past and Current Worlds

Gamo farmers in southern Ethiopia preparing the harvest of grains. Photo by John W. Arthur
Gamo farmers in southern Ethiopia preparing the harvest of grains. Photo by John W. Arthur.

“Thirst rather than hunger may have been the stimulus behind the origin of small grain agriculture.”

—Jonathan Sauer, 1953

“Man cannot live on beer alone. … Are we to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?”

—Paul Mangledorf, 1953

Doing field research is incredibly exciting because it usually leads to new discoveries. This is what happened to me one day in the highlands of southern Ethiopia overlooking the Rift Valley, where I was working with an ethnic group, the Gamo, who live in southwestern Ethiopia. I wanted to look at how the Gamo produce, use and discard their pottery on an everyday basis. My goal was to understand the Gamo worldview in relation to pottery, which would aid in interpreting the pottery found at Gamo archaeological sites. This method is used in the subfield of archaeology known as ethnoarchaeology, which is the study of modern material culture to assist in the archaeological interpretation of the past. As I was interviewing women about their house-hold pottery, I kept seeing pots that looked as if acid was eating the interiors. Every time I asked a woman what was causing this, she would state that “the beer is eating the pots.” I believe that lactic acid, a common component of African beer, is causing this erosion on the pot’s interior. I subsequently noted this severe surface erosion in 100 percent of the pots used for beer.

This unexpected find motivated me to look into the role beer plays in contemporary indigenous societies throughout the world. I discovered that beer is an essential staple for many communities, often considered a food rather than a beverage. Importantly, the consumption of beer adds considerably to daily caloric intake. It has more protein, vitamins and minerals than unleavened bread, and the low alcohol content kills bacteria that may be present in the unprocessed water. The importance of beer in many communities today is illustrated by the fact that one-eighth to one-fourth of all grains grown in sub-Saharan Africa are used for the processing of beer (1). Beer binds people together and serves to reinforce social hospitality and communality during ceremonial and everyday activities. It is a common cultural marker of wealth and status; it may represent a payment of tribute to chiefs, and it is essential in the redistribution of wealth. The processing and consumption of beer pervades many cultural acts, and be- cause of its social, economic and political value it is of great significance, both as a dietary staple and as a luxury food.

A Gamo beer jar with the characteristic interior erosion caused by beer production. Photo by John W. Arthur.
A Gamo beer jar with the characteristic interior erosion caused by beer production. Photo by John W. Arthur.

Beer’s Long History

As the popularity of craft beers continues to grow, the debate about whether early Neolithic peoples were domesticating grains for beer or bread rages on. This long-standing debate reaches back to 1953, when archaeologist Robert Braidwood assembled a number of prominent anthropologists to discuss whether bread or beer prompted one of the most dramatic changes in human history, the domestication of grains (2). Although this issue has not been settled, there is important archaeological evidence that beer and other forms of alcohol have a deep history.

Beer has fed the living and the dead in societies around the world, both past and present. For example, in the past, the Incas poured chicha beer down stone carved altars that mimicked the towering montane peaks. The Ainu of Japan celebrated a bear feast and used beer as a connection to their ancestors. Today, the Rarámari in northern Mexico use beer as a currency of reciprocity to motivate the community to engage in work parties, and the contemporary Gamo of southwestern Ethiopia pour beer on the earth to feed their ancestors for the health and fertility they bring to the people, land and nature.

Recently, there has been an increased interest in looking for beer in the archaeological record. The earliest recorded evidence is from the Chinese site of Jiahu, dating to 9,000 years ago. Here Patrick McGovern, who is often referred to as the “beer archaeologist,” found evidence of beer from residues on pots located within the village (3). This beer was made with rice, wild grape or hawthorn fruit, and honey. The Jiahu site includes shamans buried with pots, tortoise shells filled with pebbles and flutes made from the wing bone of red-crowned cranes, possibly representing immortality as in later Chinese religion. Jaihu also is the place where the earliest Chinese written characters are found. These interesting discoveries in association with beer indicate the important role beer may have played in the formation of Chinese state societies. In other regions of the world as well, beer production correlated with major cultural changes.

The Godin Tepe site in the Zagros Mountains of Iran was occupied during the Late Uruk period, dating to 5,400 years ago. This is the time of the first code of law, the first irrigation system, the first bureaucracy and the earliest formal writing system in the world, inscribed on clay tablets. The Godin Tepe site revealed the earliest wine found to date, but it also contained a large 50-liter jug with a wide mouth. This jug has grooves in the interior containing a yellowish, resinous-looking material. Rudolph Michel and his research team (4) revealed that the substance is calcium oxalate, which occurs from processing and storing barley beer. Known as “beerstone” by brewers, it is an organic acid salt. Calcium oxalate is bitter and potentially poisonous; the grooves in the jugs may have served to collect this compound and keep it out of the brew. Interestingly, the beerstone found at Tepe Godin is identical to the beerstone produced today at the Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia (5).

Beer in Africa has been an important food staple since the first pharaohs more than 5,000 years ago; archaeologist Jeremy Geller discovered a large brewery at the site of Hierakonpolis (6). Early Egyptians were similar to contemporary cultures in drinking a variety of beers, from a sweet beer to “beer of eternity” to “beer that does not sour.” Beer was used to pay workers and for the pharaoh to drink after he had been resurrected in his tomb. Egyptians drank beer for curing a number of ailments, including strengthening gums, dressing wounds and even as an enema to treat diseases of the anus (7). Beer was also tied to health; George Armelagos and others found that people living along the Nile 1,400 years ago were producing a beer from grain contaminated with the bacteria streptomyces, which produces tetracycline. Tetracycline from the beer was found in the bones of a majority of individuals, improving their sense of well- being and helping to prevent bone loss due to age (8).

Early beer production was always pro- posed for the Old World, especially the Near East. Now there is evidence of early domestication of corn in the New World dating as far back as 8,700 years ago as well, based on exciting new findings from a Mexico rock shelter by Dolores Piperno and her team (9). This work supports a theory that early domesticated corn was used to make a sweet fermented drink from corn stalks (10). Although more research is needed concerning this proposal, there is evidence of early beer production from the mountaintops of the Andes.

Known as the “Masada of the Andes” Cerra Baúl is a 600-meter high sacred mountain site that dates to 1,400 years ago. It takes an hour to reach the summit. Here Michael Moseley and his team uncovered shawl pins, an elite symbol, next to where women were brewing beer; they believe that women would undo their pins to remove their shawls because of the heat. The site’s northern boiling room contained at least seven fire pits, each with a pair of opposed stone pedestals. Floor deposits also revealed abundant seeds of Schinus molle, which is a spicy berry that is used in producing beer by boiling or soaking the whole berry to release sugars in the resin pockets on their central pits. The brewers discard the pits to produce a boiled, syrupy, fermented mash, used to make chicha de molle. After boiling, the chicha was transported to the fermentation area and placed in a row of 12 large vats lining the north wall of the central patio. Here the chicha fermented for three to five days in vats that could hold up to 150 liters of beer, indicating a production capacity of around 1,800 liters per batch, which is the largest pre-Inca brewery discovered in the Americas. Moseley’s team interprets that the final brew at Cerra Baúl occurred when 28 nobles drank from vessels ranging in size and status from 12 ounces to 64 ounces. Then the brewery was ritually burned and the nobles threw their vessels into the fire in an act of sacrifice. After the fire cooled, six necklaces of shell and stone and a bracelet were placed atop the ashes in a final act of reverence (11).

These examples suggest beer’s long history in helping to form complex societies around the world. Beer continues to be a critical food for people living today, and re- search on beer in contemporary societies can lead to new discoveries about how to interpret its importance during ancient times.

A Gamo woman preparing beer. Photo by John W. Arthur.
A Gamo woman preparing beer. Photo by John W. Arthur.

Beer in Indigenous Societies Today

The production of beer throughout the world is usually within the domain of women, indicating that women command the knowledge to create and refine grains or other plants such as manioc or bananas into a complex fermented drink. There are vast variations in how women produce beer, but all require considerable time-consuming labor. In most societies, producing beer is a multi-step process. In Ethiopia, women use a number of crops, including wheat, barley, maize, sorghum and finger millet. Gamo women state that beer is the most labor-intensive food to make. Here I have seen beer produced by first soaking the grains in a large pot of water, usually a large bowl or jar, for one day. Then a woman will pour the water out but leave the wet grains in the pot for three days to begin germination. After the grains have germinated, she will take the grains out of the pot and place them in a sunny area to dry. Once the grains are dry, she will grind them twice, first using a large, coarse groundstone and then a smaller, finer groundstone. Finally, a woman will roast the grain on a large ceramic plate. When it is done she will form the grain into a bread- like loaf and move it to a large jar where it is mixed with water, ginger, garlic and pepper for boiling. Then the beer is left for five days to ferment. Finally, a woven sieve is used to filter the beer before it is consumed.

The Social Hierarchy of Beer

Contemporary indigenous societies such as the Gamo produce and consume beer as a medium that bridges the ancestors and the living. Ritual, economics and status all come together through feasting, with beer acting as the social lubricant. Beer is tied to wealth in Gamo society, as only the wealthiest, high-caste families have the grain production to make beer. Most Gamo follow a strict caste order, where artisans such as potters, hide workers, groundstone makers and ironsmiths belong to the lower castes, with the land-owning farmers being from the high caste. High-caste farmers control the social, economic, political and ritual life in Gamo; beer is an integral part of their lives. Within the Gamo caste system beer production and consumption reinforce unity among the high caste but also exclude artisans from being able to process and consume beer’s benefits. Many indigenous societies think of beer as a food, and among the Gamo beer is considered a luxury food. Wealthy, high-caste males whose fathers are deceased are sometimes chosen to become ritual-sacrificers for the community; they bring fertility to the people, land and animals partly by providing two beer feasts for community members. A ritual-sacrificer must have enough farmland to produce large amounts of beer and other types of high-status foods. Women who are tied to the ritual-sacrificer produce an astounding 2,000 liters of beer for each feast. Before the feasts begin, Gamo elders pour a portion of their beer on the ground to symbolically feed the ancestors for providing fertility to the community. The discovery of the erosion on the pot’s interior is a marker of wealth in Gamo society, and it is a signature of beer production in the present and on pottery in archaeological sites representing the original Gamo settlements.

Beer is also an indicator of status and wealth in other societies around the world. The payment of tribute with beer indicates its economic and political importance. Robert Carlson found that when the Haya of Tanzania produce beer, it is their obligation to pay their leader four or more gallons of banana beer (12). They present the leader with special gourds of beer that have wrappings of banana fiber and are tied with twigs and leaves from a plant that symbolizes purity and strength.

Brewing beer in association with slaughtering cattle among the Koma of Cameroon also provides a means to improve an individual’s status, as Igor de Garine discovered (13). The cattle dance ceremony celebrates the hard work and good qualities of a man’s wife as a good mother to their children. The ceremony in her honor is a redistribution feast that increases the husband’s social status by distributing meat and beer to their kin and religious leaders. Once the husband has hosted up to seven ceremonies his status in- creases because he is knowledgeable about the secret rituals and places, and he can drink beer from his own pot without sharing.

The Rarámari who live in the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico produce a beer called tesquino made from corn fermented with a local grass seed (basiáhuari), according to John Kennedy’s seminal 1963 research (14). Recently, the Rarámari have been popularized by Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book, Born to Run (15), which describes their prowess in long-distance running. For the Rarámari beer is a sign of wealth and status, since the wealthier can afford to use their surplus corn to make beer, especially a few months before harvest time. Another sign of status is how far people come to drink beer when a wealthy individual is holding a beer feast; the breadth of a person’s network is an indication of his status. Beer can also be used as a symbol of social control; being left off the guest list reduces an individual’s social status.

A Gamo family preparing to take a large beer jar to a wedding. Photo by John W. Arthur.
A Gamo family preparing to take a large beer jar to a wedding. Photo by John W. Arthur.

Beer as Sustenance

Although beer may reflect a person’s social standing, in many indigenous societies the majority of people consume beer as an everyday food product. Beer also plays an essential role in the establishment of social obligations. The importance of communal consumption is one of the reasons people process their grains into beer rather than bread (16). In the Equadorian Amazon, Michael Uzendoski worked with the Napo Runa, who produce a manioc beer. Uzendoski writes that they believe “manioc beer is the life of the Runa people,” as the beer is associated with human reproduction (17). Manioc beer gives the Napo strength, happiness and hospitality. This is seen in Napo weddings where the groom’s family gives beer to the bride’s father, which acts to symbolically unite the two families and reduce ceremonial tension.

The Rarámari consume their beer as a social activity rather than as an individual act (18). This drink is a staple for all social gatherings of the Rarámari and is tied to their religious, ritual and economic life. For example, whenever beer is drunk, it is dedicated to tata diosi, the spirit who gave the Rarámari the knowledge of beer-making. The beer is symbolically placed in the four cardinal directions so that tata diosi can drink first. Whoever makes the beer presents it to the most influential elder, then the elder serves beer in order of social rank. Newborn babies are protected by beer; the ritual specialist dips his cross in the beer and places the cross on the newborn. The infant is fed a small amount of the sacred beer as well. In addition, if a person is sick the patient and doctor will drink small amounts of the beer, and the doctor will dip a cross into the beer and place the cross on the wrists and head of the patient. Beer is also placed on new corn and young animals as a medicine. Finally, beer is an important part of rituals for rainmaking and protecting the economy of the Rarámari.

Beer as a Motivating Ingredient

Beer has an important economic aspect. Since it is considered a food, individuals who have the means to produce large quantities of beer will use it to pay people to do work such as plant and harvest their crops. In order to gather a work party, beer is essential; without beer, it can be impossible to bring people together to cooperate on the task at hand. Beer is used by the Gamo as a motivation to work for the community, or by wealthy individuals who can afford to produce enough to pay workers. Feasts also ac- company work parties; in Southern Africa leaders and wealthier commoners organize large work parties and then provide an abundance of beer (19). The Pondo of South Africa rate their beer feasts higher than meat feasts because they say beer makes the work seem more like a party (20). Among the Kofyar of Nigeria, beer is the primary means for repaying voluntary labor to hoe and harvest agricultural fields and for building corrals and houses (21). These examples demonstrate that beer is a motivating force for labor, and beer also has a role to play in the formation of an elite.

For the Rarámari, besides curing, cooperative work is one of the most important reasons for making beer (22). They prefer to plant and harvest their crops with cooperative labor, and beer is part of the payment for communal work. The beer acts as a binding force among individuals, families and communities and reinforces the social and economic obligations and reciprocity that cooperative work instills.

A Gamo community working together to move a house; they will be paid with beer. Photo by John W. Arthur.
A Gamo community working together to move a house; they will be paid with beer. Photo by John W. Arthur.

Bread or Beer?

After my discovery of deciphering beer production from the erosion found on the interior of beer pots, I have realized that beer is more than just a beverage to many indigenous societies; it is a critical component of their social, economic and political wellbeing. Current archaeological research indicates that beer was an integral part of past people’s lives. Research encompassing cultural, physical and archaeological evidence will begin to better answer the question that Robert Braidwood proposed 60 years ago— whether the impetus for the domestication of grains may have been beer rather than bread.


I am grateful for the continued support that the Gamo have given to this research. I would like to thank the National Science Foundation for supporting the work (BCS-9705781, BCS-0514055, BCS-0520999 and BCS 1027607) and the National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant (RZ-5-575). My research has been successful because of the dedication to professionalism by the Ethiopian ARCCH administration and the National Museum of Ethiopia. I thank Maria Vesperi, Kathy Arthur and the peer reviewer for helping to craft a more readable essay.


Photos by John W. Arthur.

1. B. S. Platt, “Some Traditional Alcoholic Beverages and Their Importance in Indigenous African Communities,” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 14 (1955): 115–124.

2. Robert J. Braidwood, Jonathan D. Sauer, Hans Helbaek, Paul C. Mangelsdorf, Hugh C. Cutler, Carleton S. Coon, Ralph Linton, Julian Steward and A. Leo Oprenheim, “Symposium: Did Man Once Live on Beer Alone?” American Anthropologist 53, no. 4 (1953): 515–526.

3. Patrick E. McGovern, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

4. Rudolph H. Michel, Patrick E. McGovern and Virginia R. Badler, “The First Wine and Beer: Chemical Detection of Ancient Fermented Beverages,” Analytical Chemistry 65, no. 8 (1993): 408–413.

5. McGovern, Uncorking the Past (2009).

6. Jeremy Geller, “From Prehistory to History: Beer in Egypt,” in The Followers of Horus: Stud- ies Dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffman 1944– 1990, eds. R. Friedman and B. Adams, Egyptian Studies Association Publication No. 2 (Oxford: Oxbow Monograph 20. 1992).

7. William J. Darby, Paul Ghalioungui and Louis Grivetti, Food: The Gift of Osiris, Volume 1 (London: Academic Press, 1977).

8. George J. Armelagos, Kristi Kolbacher, Kristy Collins, Jennifer Cook and Maria Krafeld- Daugherty, “Tetracycline Consumption in Prehistory,” in Tetracyclines in Biology, Chemistry and Medicine, eds., M. Nelson, W. Hillen, and R. A. Greenwald (Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2001).

9. Dolores R. Piperno, Anthony J. Ranere, Irene Holst, Jose Iriarte and Ruth Dickau, “Starch Grain and Phytolith Evidence from Early Ninth Millennium B.P. Maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106, no.13 (2009): 5019–5024.

10. John Smalley and Michael Blake, 2003. “Sweet Beginnings: Stalk Sugar and the Domestication of Maize,” Current Anthropology 44, no. 5 (2003): 675–703.

11. Michael E. Moseley, Donna J. Nash, Patrick Ryan Williams, Susan D. deFrance, Ana Miranda and Mario Ruales, “Burning Down the Brewery: Establishing and Evacuating an Ancient Imperial Colony at Cerro Baúl, Peru,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102, no. 48 (2005): 17264–17271.

12. Robert Carlson, “Banana Beer, Reciprocity, and Ancestor Propitiation among the Haya of Bukoba, Tanzania,” Ethnology 29, no. 4 (1990): 297–311.

13. Igor de Garine, “Food and the Status Quest in Five African Cultures,” in Food and the Status Quest, eds. P. Wiessner and W. Schiefen- hövel (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1996).

14. John G. Kennedy, “The Role of Beer in Tarahumara Culture,” American Anthropologist 65, no. 3 (1963): 620–640.

15. Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (New York: Knopf, 2009).

16. Michael Dietler, “Driven by Drink: The Role of Drinking in the Political Economy and the Case of Early Iron Age France,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9, no. 4 (1990): 352– 406.

17. Michael Uzendoski, “Manioc Beer and Meat: Value, Reproduction and Cosmic Substance among the Napo Runa of the Ecuadorian Amazon,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10, no. 4 (2004): 883–994.

18. Kennedy, The Role of Beer in Tarahumara (1963).

19. J. Crush, “The Construction of Compound Authority: Drinking at Havelock, 1938–1944,” in Liquor and Labor in Southern Africa, eds. J. Crush and C. Ambler (Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1992).

20. Kennedy, The Role of Beer in Tarahumara (1963).

21. M. Hunter, Reaction to Conquest: Effects of Contact with Europeans on the Pondo of South Africa (Cape Town: David Philip, 1979).

22. Robert Netting, 1964. “Beer as a Locus of Value among the West African Kofyar,” American Anthropologist 66, no. 2 (1964): 375–384.

John W. Arthur is associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. His research in Ethiopia started in 1995, focusing on ceramic ethnoarchaeology and regarding how social stratification can be distinguished by household pottery. His recent research continues in southern Ethiopia, encompassing archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, oral history and oral tradition to understand Gamo history. His writing has recently appeared in African Archaeological Review, Asian and African Study Monographs, Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Record and American Antiquity. His book on Gamo pottery, Living with Pottery: Ethnoarchaeology among the Gamo of Southwest Ethiopia, was published by the University of Utah Foundations of Archaeological Inquiry Series.

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