What made us go from small bands of hunters and gatherers to massive societies made up of millions of people? How did, in the evolutionary-equivalent of a blink of an eye, agriculture, art, technology, law, cities, architecture, religion and all of the other complex ideas, behaviors and concepts of civilization arise out of some upright apes?
Was it a divine spark?
No. It was probably beer.
For hundreds of years scientists and historians have thought that some wily hunters in the fertile crescent (today Syria and Iraq) realized that planting some of the seeds made more food next year appear – and agriculture was born. Around the world this happened again and again, with hunters swapping to farming.
Then as they were living in one place with a abundance of food some people in the society were freed from the need to gather food and people began to specialize. Some were good at making the bread – bakers, others at chanting and waving their hands around – priests, some were good at making pretty things – artists, and others were good at stealing a bit of everyone elses food for ‘protection’ – Kings. Laws arose to show how these new professions interact and thus Civilization was born.
But there was a problem – well 2 problems – with the story. Farming is hard and bad for the farmers so why would they do it.
Life expectancy in the skeletons we found went from 40-50 in hunter gatherers down to 20. In ancient Rome – the pinnacle of civilization – it was still only 22 (suddenly the tv show Plebs isn’t that far off it).
Also Modern hunter gatherers we find today around the world also have the work/life balance thing right too – working between 2-4 hours a day to get the calories they need. Early Farmers likely had to work every day all day to barely subsist and had a much less varied diet (try eating porridge for every meal every day and not be tempted to go back into the forest).
So why did we swap hunter-gathering for farming?
Well this is where the beer comes in. Sites in Turkey, including the famous Gobekli Tepe, show that before agriculture, hunter-gatherers started harvesting wild grasses. They were using the ancestors of wheat and barley to make beer – crushing them up in big tubs and leaving them to ferment. They found hundreds of these tubs and even simple musical instruments. What were they doing – having a festival of course. At this proto-Glastonbury hunter gatherer groups would come from miles around to drink, listen to someone rock out on the deer-horn flute and enjoy themselves.
Over time the evidence shows people became reluctant to leave the party. They built stone houses, started to plant the grasses to make bread and not only beer. Art and religion flourished as pissed people philosophized. And the festival grew, spawning many more over the area. More resources where needed and people got jobs organizing it – becoming brewers, bakers, farmers, priests and kings. And like the old story civilization was born from specialization.
However, now we know the last 10,000 years have been the hangover.