Wet Rally

Anthropology: How Alcohol Shaped Human History

Ever heard the phrase “Cracking open a cold one with the boys?” It implies that whoever says it finds drinking alcohol with friends comforting. Even the simple sound of a bottle or can opening is enough to feel at home. Why is that? Well, that phrase is the result of thousands of years of humans drinking alcohol. As a result, alcohol itself has changed the course of history in strange and unexpected ways. Despite the aspects of getting buzzed changing greatly, its importance in almost every society is the same.

What is alcohol?

Modern Spiral Brewery in Hastings, England
Modern Spiral Brewery in Hastings, Englandhttps://growlermag-media.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/20180416171827/Spiral-Brewing-Company-Photo-by-Aaron-Davidson-311-e1523917423217.jpg

For those that never paid attention in chemistry class, here is a brief explanation of alcohol. In the simplest terms, alcohol is a fermented liquid. Firstly, Fermentation is the process of organisms eating carbohydrates like wheat and sugar. To make alcohol, there specifically must be no air in the area. With no oxygen, the organisms are forced to burn calories without it. This process creates alcohol as a waste product, which is what everyone wants.

Alcoholism is older than humans

Monkeys eating fermented fruit
Monkeys eating fermented fruit https://cbsnews1.cbsistatic.com/hub/i/r/2014/04/14/a9400eb0-cf95-4dbe-b56d-b7920a4b350e/thumbnail/1200×630/25587af3e6588f296b2b915f72e4dea0/monkeys-fruit.jpg

Scientists and anthropologists have a theory that our primate ancestors ate fermented fruit as snacks. Back then, no one knew how the funny fruit made them feel weird, it just did. At some point, a total genius figured out how this happened and how to make more. Adding bacteria to a fruit or vegetable and putting it all in a box undeground gave back sweet ethanol a few months later.

The business of booze

Eventually, humans figured out that drinking is a big business. The oldest brewery ever found is in a cave in Israel. This brewery exists near ancient farmland that seemed to grow wheat. This means whoever made the beer grew the wheat to make it.

This next paragraph is only a theory, so bear with it. This brewery is older than the oldest bakery on Earth by thousands of years. This is evidence that humans invented beer before bread. Beer itself also backs this theory up. Those that ran the ancient breweries had no good beer filters like today. Unfiltered beer is very “chunky.” Those chunks are bread dough. Bread has the same ingredients as beer, which is wheat, water and yeast. At some point after filtration became popular, brewers decided to simply eat the chunks by themselves. Cooking the chunks made bread, which was even more delicious.

Ethyl is everywhere

Every major society made and drank some kind of alcoholic beverage. They all differ by the available ingredients in the area. Vodka is found in central Asia, made from wheat and potatoes. Japan has Sake, made of rice and barley. Germany has Schnapps and Korn, made of fruit and cereal grain respectively. Mexico has Tequila, made from agave and limes. Peru has Pisco, made from grapes. No matter where you are, there is a way to get wasted.

Alcohol and religion

Painting of Jesus turning water into wine
Painting of Jesus turning water into wine https://jesus.christ.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Jesus-Turning-Water-into-Wine-.jpg

Around the world, different faiths view and treat alcohol in different ways. Despite many religions being closely related, you might not realize that from their views on booze. Great skill and some luck is needed to make the stuff, so good alcohol is often viewed as divine intervention due to the the unpredictable nature of distilling. 

Use in rituals

In ancient times, alcohol quickly became known for changing people. Some saw this as the spirit briefly interacting with the other side. This journey was and still is very important for some as a rite of passage. The Fali people of Cameroon use a type of beer called Bolo in every event. In particular,  Shaman would drink to escape their bodies and talk to the great spirits.

Wine is an important part of Judaism and Christianity. In the early versions of both, animal blood was used as a sacrifice to God or any gods the people beleived in. Wine would eventually replace blood, as it is a similar color and did not require killing. The Catholic church symbolized the blood of christ with wine and had followers drink from a chalice.

Jewish followers have a similar ceremony called Kiddush. This happens on certain days like Sabbath. On these days, wine is blessed and passed around to all in attendance. The Seder meal at the beginning of Passover involves attendants drinking from four cups of wine at specific times. Getting drunk is also encouraged during the feast of Purim as a sign of celebration.

Gluttony is a sin

Buddhism and Islam have the opposite opinion on drinking. Alcohol leads to a loss of self-control. This is why many middle-eastern countries ban alcohol, it is against their religion. No drinking is one of the five buddhist precepts that governs how life should be lived. Alcohol is that frowned upon.

When Ideals collide

Despite the clear cut opinions in some aspects of religion, there are gray areas in other areas. Judaism and Christianity have rules about how much alcohol can be drunk by one person. Drinking is okay during the events mentioned. Only the amount give is acceptable, however. Any more is gluttonous, and the soul is forever damned. On the other side, Islam promises wine is in heaven for you to drink. This goes against what muslims are taught, but it is a nice reward for a life of not having it.

Alcohol and America

American settlers talking to Native Americans around a barrel of alcohol
American settlers talking to Native Americans around a barrel of alcohol https://psmag.com/.image/t_share/MTQ2NTk2MjQ0NjYwOTU0OTk5/637b9-1pr22doz0ebbnmqwzpceowa.jpg

Perhaps more than any other country, alcohol has shaped what America looks and acts like. Whether the nation was first starting or has been around for hundreds of years, the wet, sticky prints of beer and whiskey are all over its history.

The connection goes all the way back to the founding of the colonies in the 1600s. The first European settlers were already heavy drinks before they set foot in the new world.  They brought about 10,000 gallons of beer and whiskey with them because it is more important than food. Each individual had a gallon ration per day. They ran low as they approached the new world and wanted to fill up in the settlement of Jamestown. Unfortunately, they went way off course and ended up far north. They made the most of it and created Plymouth, where they got what they could find and made alcohol out of it. The most common ingredients became oats, carrots and corn, as they are simple to grow and common in the area.

Don’t drink the water, but don’t drink either

Fresh, clean water was hard to come by in the early days of America. Absolutely no plumbing at all, and sea water was gross. The settlers had to find other options. Since beer, whiskey, cider, and all other beverages were safe to consume, people often drank it more than water. In fact, a brewery was among the original buildings for the town. These breweries also acted as courthouses. Making trials where most of the town gathers makes sense and saves space. Alcohol was just that important.

However, strict rules against alcohol exist at the same time. Time in the stocks and a whipping became punishment for being drunk in public. Despite everyone drinking a gallon per day, drunkenness is still a sin. This new country must keep appearances.

We all feel invincible when drunk

Out of all American people, the military may be the most drunk. In the business of getting shot at, anything that takes away the pain is welcome. Soldiers were even paid with whiskey at one point before money was established.  Alcoholism is now rampant in every branch of the military and beyond. Those on the front lines need to get through the day, and a few shots do the trick just fine. With reports that alcohol helps relieve pain, there is actual reason for wounded soldiers to drink.

The first war for whiskey

Rebels holding a tax collector hostage and burning down his house
Rebels holding a tax collector hostage and burning down his house https://lebomag.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/1794-excise-taxes.jpg

After the revolutionary war, America was now its own country. However, the government had to borrow money from other sources during the war and is now in huge debt. Each state borrowed money individually, which caused many problems on how to pay everything back. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had the idea of taking each state’s debt and combining them into a single debt that can be paid off federally. Hamilton also suggested using excise taxes to pay off the debt. An excise tax is a tax on the sale of a specific good or service that the seller must pay.

Distilled spirits were the first goods to be excised. Breweries started popping up across the country after the revolution. Consumption continued to go up, and veterans used their distilling techniques learned during the war to make money. Congress knew taxes of any kind would not be popular, so they chose what to tax wisely. They chose alcohol because it was a luxury that no one truly needed. Alcohol was also chosen to raise awareness of its harmful nature, making the excise a “sin tax.” The “Whiskey Tax” became law in 1791.

The Right to get drunk

Opposition immediately met this new law for two main reasons. The first reason is it flies in the face of what the veterans fought for only a few years prior. This is a clear example of taxation without representation, the very concept that made America declare independence. The second reason is the tax is unfair to distillers in an economic sense. Since demand for alcohol will always be more elastic than supply, any tax like this will force many to go bankrupt.

 Many americans, especially in the west where the tax hit the hardest, rose up and protested like years before. This new rebel force wanted to make examples and send a message. Their efforts escalated into violence, with a tax collector being tarred and feathered. George Washington led the military to the area, but everyone gave up and went home before he arrived. Reports of Washington ending the rebellion spread fast, which made the public respect and trust him even more.

The second war for whiskey

Photograph of a protest to get alcohol back, called a "wet rally"
Photograph of a protest to get alcohol back, called a “wet rally” http://www.milwaukeeindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/011620_Prohibition100th.jpg

Flash forward about 130 years. Again, alcohol came under fire by the government. During the 1800s, groups like the American Temperance Society cropped up across the country. Religous in nature, the goal was to spread the idea of alchol being a sin. Justin Edwards, founder of ATS, specifically wanted drunkards to “die off and rid the world of ‘˜an amazing evil.’” Despite the many issues within the groups like racially charged motivations and infighting, their efforts paid off.

The movement started with local communities making alcohol bans. Supporters of these bans, known as “drys,” said it would stop corruption like alcoholism and domestic violence. The eighteenth amendment, created in 1920, went a step further.  Alcohol became banned nationwide. Alcohol is still fine for religion, but any other use is not allowed. The thought is acohol causes problems. If alcohol is gone, the problems would be gone too. They were right in some ways. Cases of alcohol-related diseases like Cirrhosis of the Liver, Alcoholic Psychosis and Infant Mortality reportedly decreased during Prohibition. However, that and every other claim is disputable.

Don’t tell me what to do

Soon after the bans happened, criminal gangs took control of the alcohol in many major cities. People still wanted to drink, and these gangs were happy to sell to them. While consumption fell in the first year after the law passed, it quickly rose soon after. Americans were drinking more than ever. Empires rose up around the illegal buying and selling of alcohol. The decrease of diseases mentioned earlier is also likely false. The affected probably kept quiet so they did not get in trouble.

On a side note, the now rich gang members wanted fast cars. They wanted a getaway car in case the cops found them. They often souped up the cars themselves. When they got bored, the gangs would race each other at places like Daytona Beach in Florida. These races eventually led to the creation of NASCAR.

The Twenty-Third amendment eventually passed in 1933, repealing the eighteenth amendment. Drinking alcohol became legal once again. Ironically, crime went down soon after, since buying alcohol is no longer illegal.

Use Of Alcohol Today

Large group of people inside a bar
Large group of people inside a bar https://static01.nyt.com/images/2020/07/07/well/well-bar-getty/well-bar-getty-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600.jpg

Special drinks are as prevelant as ever in the modern day. Drinking is a staple of being social around the world. Going to the bar to meet people is very common nowadays. Competitions exist to judge the best beverage in the land. Random people can and will judge others on their tastes in drinks. The grasp of alcohol has even spread to memes. Internet posts about slamming bottles all day are rampant. This comes back around to “Cracking open a cold one with the boys.” The phrase does not explain what exactly a “cold one” is, because everyone already knows. Alcohol is simply that intertwined in our culture, and that will not go away any time soon.

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