Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Great Filter – Beer

This post is serious. It is about some recent revelations in the field of archaeology here on planet Earth. It seems our way of transforming our hunter-gatherer clans into settled cities may have involved beer. It seems to indicate that fermentation was an earlier use of grain than food. In other words, humans discovered fermentation and that caused settling down to grow grain, and later bread-making was invented. Earlier in the history of archaeology, it was thought that population pressure forced the use of grains as breadstuffs, and that led to fixed site settlements, where the grain could be grown, and, poof! there are cities and civilization. But archaeological remains showed signs of grain being used for fermentation earlier than it was used for bread. There apparently are traces of fermentation that can be preserved in covered sites and later dug up and used as clues; similarly for baking bread.

This fits in with other changes in the understanding of this first grand transition than any society, alien or human, must make, that of from ‘uncivilized’ hunting bands to ‘civilized’ agricultural settlements. Grains take laborious preparation to prepare them for baking, and it is not obvious how some hunting group would stumble on it and learn how to make bread. Nor it is clear why a successful hunting band would settle down for a life of bread instead of the variety of foods that exist for a nomadic band.

If there are airborne yeasts capable of fermentation on a planet, this would be a product that could easily be discovered by a group of hunter gatherers. The effects might be enough to convince them to do whatever is necessary to reproduce it; a pile of grain in water should be enough. Once that gets going, the other steps, useful to improve the product, can be found, such as milling and grinding the grain. Then if soggy ground grain finds the right yeast, not for fermentation, but for rising of bread dough, the pathway to a life based on bread seems possible.

Why would fermented grain be so attractive to hunters? Because their life revolved around festivals of generosity, when a successful hunter or gatherer would call the clan together to share in the bounty he had found. There was no means of storing food, so greed couldn’t be invented at that time. Instead, the opposite was true. Generosity was the measure of a person in the tribe. The more generous one was, the more important one was and the greater role that the person would take in the tribe. It is a leap to assume that aliens would have the same customs, but if we instead make the weaker assumption that hunting and gathering is the way that the early intelligent aliens used to feed themselves, it seems quite plausible that they could follow the same path.

The opposite is true as well, or better stated, there should be many cautions made about making assumptions that alien life on an exoplanet is similar in some aspect to our, or that they went through the same grand transitions in the same way, or as done here, that the next level of details of the grand transition were analogous. It was only a few years ago that our assumption about solar systems was that they would all look like ours, rocky planets at the inner radii, gas giants next, and then smaller frozen worlds last. That was exploded with the discovery of hot Jupiters. Most other solar systems don’t look at all like ours. There is a wide variety of other solar systems. Making the same faulty assumption twice is quite possible, and we might find our path to civilization, even from the life origination event up to intelligent tool-makers, is unique and lots of other civilizations have arisen, but they all used some other path.

With all these very real caveats, if we also assume the neurology of aliens is similar to ours, and alcohol affects it similarly, then the interesting sequence of events that are beginning to be appreciated in the grand transition to civilization and agriculture might also exist on other planets where some big-brained creature had evolved and learned to hunt with tools created from natural materials. It isn’t mandatory that ethyl alcohol be the mediating agent. Any fermentation product that could produce counter-inhibitory effects on an alien brain would do. Whatever it was, it would give reason for a clan of aliens that had discovered it to start to cultivate it, and use it in their ceremonies of feasting.

Hunting success is a product of two things; one is the choice to go hunting on a certain date, and the other is that there would be game animals present on the chosen hunting route. Archaeologists have indicated that very early in the history of hunter-gatherer use of tools they learned the calendar. Why not, on planets with axial tilt, there is a great advantage to understanding when migrations occur, when spawning happens, when animals cease hibernating, or some other phenomena which are calendar-controlled. Another discovery was the first construction was of calendar monuments, like Stonehenge, although much earlier. This would also provide a strong impetus to stay where the calendar monument was. So, two motivations arise at around the same time for civilization to start: one is to cultivate a fermentable grain to be used in festivals of generosity, and the other is to build and use a calendar of stone or other natural materials.

Would one of these be sufficient to prod a tribe into staying in one place? It would seem that the monument-building might occur after agriculture had just gotten started, or perhaps the animal equivalent of agriculture, horse keeping or other animal keeping, had gotten started, providing some fraction of food sources, while hunting and gathering provided the residual. Thus, the initial impetus might be beer, or a similar beverage with similar effects to be used in the festivals. Once festivals have become a long-standing pattern, and the calendar is learned, festivals that figured around annual astronomic events could occur, and then these would be embellished and displace the original source of them. With grain storage, life might become easier in some aspects.

If a planet happened to not evolve any airborne yeast capable of performing their magic on wet grain, perhaps they would never get to civilization, must less technology past spears made of whatever passes for wood on that planet. If so, the title of this post will have to be taken seriously. If we ever start to communicate with another civilization, one of the first questions we might ask is: How is the beer there?

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