The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

"From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world”: The significance of beer and brewing in reconstructing the health and nutrition of ancient agriculturalists


1Department of Anthropology, Georgia State University, 2191 Peachtree Center Ave, Atlanta

Saturday Afternoon, 200DE Add to calendar

Thirty-three years ago, Armelagos and colleagues published the first evidence of antibiotic use among Sudanese Nubian agriculturalists (Science 209(4464): 1532-1534) through the consumption of tetracycline in beer contaminated with Streptomycetes bacteria. The corpus of research stemming from this initial discovery highlighted the significance of brewing in agricultural production as a delivery system for therapeutic antibiotics; it also helped to bring greater visibility to fermented grains as significant components of ancient agricultural subsistence regimes. This study continues this line of inquiry, reviewing archaeological and historical evidence for different brewing traditions throughout the ancient world. Employing a biocultural perspective, we assess the respective impacts of these various brews on the diets, nutrition, and overall health of populations in associated cultures, inferred from osteological and biochemical data. Depending on other constituents of the diet, beer consumption is an important variable to account for in reconstructing diets and inferring nutritional status. Recent isotopic and microwear-based reconstructions of diet at Machu Picchu by Turner and colleagues demonstrate this and are discussed here, revealing subtle differences in diet likely due to differential consumption of chicha beer. In general, we find that the nutritional content of beers varies significantly depending on the grain(s) and fermentation procedures utilized. Similarly, the extent to which microbial colonization (beneficial or harmful) can be surmised depends substantially on the grains themselves and the surrounding local ecology. Thus while there is no empirical support for the enduring hypothesis that beer spurred incipient agriculture, beer remains central to understanding paleonutrition in agricultural societies.

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