Episode 056 - A Short History of Drunkenness
Some of the topics we cover in this conversation with Mark Forsyth include:
- Why Hitler is partially responsible for spam email
- One important reason why you shouldn’t challenge a Malaysian Tree Shrew to a drinking competition
- Why the “drunken monkey hypothesis” explains a lot about how and why people drink the way they do.
- The difference between wet and dry cultures
- One old-fashioned workaround for observant muslims to sneak in a quick drink by screaming loudly and suddenly.
- How to feed your dead ancestors with drunken vomit
- And much, much more.
In this episode, we cover a lot of history and lot of culture. Some of the stories are outrageous, but here are a few general theories and takeaways that might change the way you think about how and why humans drink the way we do.
The Drunken Monkey Hypothesis
Alcohol can occur naturally if you leave fruit to rot. The wild yeasts jump on that stuff and cause it to ferment, and voila! Booze is created naturally.
The Drunken Monkey Hypothesis posits that, around the same time that the earliest proto-humans descended from the trees and began living on the forest floor, they began consuming fermented fruit that had fallen from the trees. There are a few evolutionary consequences of this:
- Humans can smell alcohol better than most other organisms.
- Drinking alcohol initiates the "famine" response in the brain, which is why we get the drunken munchies to this very day.
- We tend to drink in groups, and this is because those monkey people who got drunk alone tended to turn into dinner for one of the scary predators of the day. Those who got drunk in groups were better able to defend themselves.
Drinking in Early Human Societies
The Agricultural Revo-brew-sion
There may not be a causal connection between the rise of agriculture and the more large-scale production of beer, but there is most certainly a tight correlation. Beer is a more nutritious use of barley than simple breadmaking (believe it or not), and it was represented in some of the earliest pictogram-based languages designed as a record-keeping system for the exchange of goods.
Drunken Religious Experiences
Most ancient pantheistic religions involved a god or goddess of drunkenness. Sometimes that deity had other responsibilities as well, but drunkenness and revelry were always in the mix.
In ancient Greece, there was Bacchus, and in ancient Egypt, there was Hathor. In fact, at the yearly festival for this goddess, ritualized drinking and orgies were extremely important for the upper crust of Egyptian society who would get absolutely plastered in her temple, have lots of sex, and then pass out. While everyone was unconscious, the priests of Hathor would wheel in a giant statue, wait for the rising sun to strike the statue's face, and then wake up the unconscious revelers with drums and tamborines. At that point, as you woke up to see the mystical appearance of the godess' statue, she would grant you any wish that you made immediately.
Later on, as the Catholic missionaries who went on the spread the religion to pagan lands brought grape vines along with them for the purpose of creating communion wine wherever they traveled in the far flung places of the world.
"Dry" vs. "Wet" Societies
Across the ages, there are different types of cultural relationships to drinking. Usually, people either live in a "wet" culture, where you drink small amounts of alcohol throughout the day, or a "dry" culture, where you tend to drink occasionally and in heavy bursts.
One moderating factor is whether there were any laws or policies outright banning the consumption of alcohol, as with observant muslims, or during the Prohibition era in the United States during the early 20th century. These restrictions almost always occur in dry societies, and the main consequence is that drinking must be done secretly, which has its own bizarre and fascinating set of ripple effects.
I like negronis an awful lot. Whenever I sip a negroni, I always feel as though I'm rich. It just feels impossible - inconceivable - that I'm not sitting on my yacht in the sun, sipping a negroni.
If You Were a Cocktail Tool or Ingredient, What Would You Be?
I'd like to just be an ice block (or perhaps a viking beer strainer).
Cocktail with Anyone, Past or Present
Why not go for Jesus? At the wedding at Cana, he creates between 60 and 90 gallons of wine. This is messiah-quality wine, so it must be pretty damn amazing. Otherwise, I'd like to settle down with Chaucer for a pint of medieval ale.
Influential Authors & Books
- Patrick McGovern - Ancient Brews, Uncorking the Past
- Henry Jeffreys - Empire of Booze
- Iain Gately - Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
Advice for New Drinkers
Only drink what you're comfortable with. Don't try to impress anyone or "keep up."
Featured Cocktail Background Music