The Importance of Alcohol

This is the introduction from the special edition of Scientific American on Alcohol, which serves so many purposes. In addition to those below, alcohol has been used as a preservative, an antiseptic, and in extreme amounts, some spectacular and tragic deaths.

Alcohol has long perplexed our species. Wherever we look in the ancient or modern world, people have shown remarkable ingenuity in discovering how to make fermented and distilled beverages and in incorporating them into their cultures. Africa, where Homo Sapiens first emerged some 200,000 years ago, sets the pattern, which is repeated over and over again as humans spread out across the globe. Africa’s thousands of distinct cultures today are awash in sought and millet beers, honey mead, and banana and palm wines, many of which were likely “hangovers” from long ago. Nearly every aspect of life, from birth to death – everyday meals, rites of passage and major religious festivals – revolve around one or more of these alcoholic beverages. Similarly, grape wine is central to Western religions, rice and millet beers held court in Ancient China, and a fermented cacao beverage was the beverage of the elite in pre-Columbian Americas.

Despite the popularity of alcoholic beverages the world over, their potential dangers play a sinister leitmotif in human history Wine might gladden the heart, according to biblical psalmists, but it could also sting like an adder the great Chinese Shang emperors of he late second millennium BC are said to have succumbed to too much drink, going crazy and committing suicide. Prohibition movements inevitably rose up to meet the challenge in various parts of he world, from India where Buddhism emphasised meditative techniques for giving transcendance, to the more recent attempts in 19th and 20th century America and Europe to stamp out alcohol consumption altogether…

Much of what we consider uniquely human – music, dance, theatre, religious storytelling and worship, language,and a thought process that would eventually become science – were stimulated by the creation and consumption of alcoholic beverages during the Palaeolithic period, which compasses some 95% of our largely unknown hominid history. 

 Is alcohol the most important substance in our history – for both good and bad reasons?

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