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3 Things You May Not Have Known About Beer

The U.S. is home to ubiquitous ads touting Miller Lite and Budweiser, not to mention a burgeoning microbrew industry. However, beer, in developing regions of the world, plays a much different role.

It's a role that John Arthur has been examining for years - one that the USF St. Petersburg associate professor of anthropology says may just change what we think about the development of mankind.

In the last 20 years, Arthur has paid over a dozen visits to the Gamo people of southwestern Ethiopia, an area that he describes as "the exact opposite of what most people think of Ethiopia." Instead of an arid desert, the Gamo live in lush highlands that extend around 9,000 feet above the nearby Rift Valley.

The indigenous people have long lived an agrarian-based lifestyle. As part of Arthur's studies into their way of life, he's looked at the role beer plays in it - what he calls "the archeology of beer." He shared some of what he's learned with WUSF's University Beat. Here are two of those facts, and one surprising theory:

  1. Because the earliest written mention of beer is only from about 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, researchers like Arthur look for earlier 'records' of beer in pottery. Some pottery from as far back as 5,000 to 9,000 years shows signs of erosion that indicate beer was brewed and stored in them.
  2. The beer in the region hasn't changed much over time, and is unlike any you've probably ever had before. For one, it has very low alcohol, only 2 to 4 percent. That keeps the amount of bacteria down, making beer, in some places, safer to drink than the water. In addition, it's high in protein and vitamins. As a result, in some developing countries, beer is viewed as a food staple, similar to bread.
    All that being said, you still might not want to take a taste. Arthur says most of the beer is very sour, and despite the lack of bacteria, it still is grainy, with things you probably don't want to drink floating on top.
  3. And now, the theory: the use of beer as both a sign of privilege - most beer was brewed by members of higher, land-owning castes - and as a trading tool or as a payment to lower caste members for services, leads Arthur and other anthropologists to question a basic belief about mankind's development:
    The generally accepted thought is that man stopped living a nomadic hunting-and-gathering lifestyle to take on a more agrarian way of life, growing grains for breads. But what if those grains were instead used to make beer?
    Again, beer was - and in some places, still is - both a staple of life and an important trading commodity. And, at the time mankind adopted this lifestyle, beer was healthier than unleavened bread.

Arthur is continuing to research this theory, with a goal of returning to Ethiopia in two years and excavating a number of caves dating back 6,000 years. Among other things, he hopes to see more definitive signs of how the Gamo people used beer. 
Depending on what he finds, we might just see that, even thousands of years ago, beer was making mankind do things that we'd never imagine we would.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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