All Things Assyrian
Beer: The Midwife of Civilization
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Every work dealing with the history of beer, it seems, starts out talking blithely about the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia as the first brewers, the inventors of beer, some eight to ten thousand years ago. However, what is usually lacking from of the published histories of beer is a meaningful treatise of the most obvious question: Why in Mesopotamia? Why at that point in time? And what, if anything, does it mean for us today? Indeed, the Sumerians were probably the first beer-makers. At the very least, they were the very first beer-makers of consequence. But "knowing" and "understanding" events, historical or present-day, are often two different things...and there is (in my view) much, much more to the story of the invention of beer than the bare facts!

"Cogito, ergo sum," (I think, therefore I am) famously wrote the French philosopher, mathematician and natural scientist René Descartes (1596-1650). From the perspective of a beer historian, however, old Descartes just may have missed the trick with his famous homily. Historically it actually might have been more accurate had Descartes said instead: "Bibo cerevisiam, ergo sum" (I drink beer, therefore I am). The following is a speculative essay to explain why. It is an attempt to give beer--next to Descartes' thought--its proper place in our anthropology. Thus we will look not only at the facts about the origins of beer--as best as they have been developed by archaeologists--but also at the surprising and usually overlooked linkages that have emerged between beer and human nature, that is, between our favorite beverage and who we are!

In the Beginning There Was What? To get to the heart of the matter of civilization and the place of beer in it, perhaps it helps to consider briefly who we were--most likely--before civilization: Paleo-anthropologists tell us that Homo sapiens, that is, humans like you and me, have been on this earth for at least 200,000--maybe even 400,000--years, at least biologically, somewhere in Africa. But as cultural beings we have not been around for more than perhaps the last 10,000 years...and, incredibly, beer-making has been around just as long, but apparently not longer! The place where civilization--Stone Age civilization--and beer-making began, anthropologists believe, was in a place accessible on foot from Africa--perhaps via an unlikely detour through India--in the Middle East, somewhere in the moist mountains of Persia (present-day Iran) and Anatolia (part of present-day Turkey).

Life must have been uncertain for these early Mid-Eastern bands of humans who are known to have wandered through their habitat at a time when Europe was still recovering from the last Ice Age. Daily survival was a roving game of chance and food was probably the only thing on their minds. For these mountain hunters and gatherers, food came with swift and nimble feet, wings, and fins designed for a quick getaway, or it grew somewhat haphazardly as wild fruits, grains, and vegetables in scattered places. It was never just for the taking. Instead, man always had to go to the food and, if necessary, subdue it. These prehistoric nomads, therefore, had neither the opportunity nor the interest in leaving behind elaborate or lasting traces of their existence for posterity to study--other than their bones and simple hunting tools. Worrying about what their descendents might think of them was not a likely preoccupation for creatures whose "sapient" gray matter, when not sporadically preoccupied with procreation, was solely focused on clubbing that stag behind the next bush so that the tribe may live another day.

The Seminal Escape from the Fog of Prehistory

Some in the wandering tribe must have left the mountains of Persia and Anatolia, perhaps by accident, and strayed into the plains below. When they returned, they must have told others of the arid steppes they had seen where the hunting was good and the living seemed easy. So one day, the tribe might have assembled for a momentous journey--a journey not just out of the mist of the mountains, as it were, but also out of the fog of prehistory. The tribe descended into the flood plains between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in what is now Iraq, into a region that the Greeks would one day call Mesopotamia, which means "land between the rivers."

There, the mountain people found plenty of food, and survival appeared less tenuous, with opportunities they could not have imagined before. Because the hunt for meat and the search for grains no longer consumed all their time, they could now congregate at regular meeting places, swap stories, and share their food and their company at leisure. Such meeting places, we imagine, might have evolved into the first settlements. These early Mesopotamians we now recognize as the Sumerians, a Stone Age people who were the first to have taken the giant step into what we now call history. In the "land between the rivers," they evolved into a sedentary culture that lasted at least five thousand years.

The First Farmer-Brewers

BarleyBefore the Sumerians became settled in the Mesopotamian plains, beer-making, which requires a reliable and ample supply of cereal grain as well as steadiness and patience, was probably not even possible. Today, there is evidence of the beginnings of human cereal cultivation, mostly of wild barley (Hordeum spontaneum) with six rows of kernels, which dates from right after the Sumerians had given up their hunting and gathering ways.

The Sumerians probably had already been familiar with barley from their previous mountain habitat. By today's standard, this barley must have tasted somewhat astringent, because of its small kernel size, which gave the grain a relatively large proportion of tannin-rich husks. The Sumerians must have figured out rather quickly, however, how to improve their staple grain, because we know from archaeological finds in Jarmo in the Taurus Mountains of modern Iraq that, as early as 7000 BC, the Sumerians were cultivating an advanced type of barley, Hordeum distichium, with two rows of big, instead of six rows of small, kernels. This Sumerian-bred crop is the forerunner of most modern brewing barley and one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world.

Another cereal, which was first cultivated in Mesopotamia about nine thousand years ago, and which in its wild stage takes its origin from the steppes of Eurasia, is wheat (Triticum aestivum). The Sumerians--just like the modern brewers of Hefeweizen in Bavaria--used it for beer-making. In addition, they grew a now rarely planted sub-variety of wheat, called emmer or spelt (Triticum dicoccum), for both beer- and bread-making. The oldest evidence of emmer cultivation dates to about seven thousand years ago.

With fewer than 10 inches of rain per year, Mesopotamia was too arid for purely rain-fed agriculture. So the Sumerians built complex irrigation systems that diverted the waters of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, and turned the dry plains into verdant fields of wheat, emmer, and barley. Soon oceans of golden stalks, swaying in the wind, stretched from the riverbanks to the horizon, and the once-unyielding land became a bountiful grain basket for both bread- and beer-making. And still today, this land is part of what we call the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.

The oldest depiction of beer-making in Sumeria (and thus in the world!) is more than four thousand years old, and it shows the de-husking of emmer for a sacrificial beer brewed specifically in honor of the goddess Ninkasi, whom the Sumerians worshipped as the great mother of creation. Ninkasi is also known by the names of Ningiirsu, Ninurta, Nidaba, Astarte, or Ishtar. She was revered as the goddess of fertility. Her emblem was an ear of emmer or barley. In the spring she caused the grain to ripen. Grain was the center of Sumerian culture and Ninkasi, its goddess, the center of Sumerian ritual. Ninkasi was born of sparkling-fresh water. In the world above, her job was to brew all the beer for all the gods. On earth, she was in charge of the harvest, beer and brewing, drunkenness, seduction, the passionate art of carnal love, and the cruel art of war. Her name meant "the lady who fills the mouth."

The First Society--Based on Grain for Bread and Beer

Eventually the Sumerians produced more grain than they could consume themselves, either in solid or in liquid form. So they began to trade the fruits of the earth with neighboring people, mostly Semitic tribes to the north. To organize their massive collective efforts, they developed humanity's first large-scale cities, at least 7,000 years ago. The earliest carbon-dated remnants of such civilized habitations go back to between 4000 and 5000 BC, but they probably thrived long before then. They were substantial and permanent enough to have private and public buildings made from brick and stone. One of the major Sumerian cities was Babylon, on the banks of the Euphrates, some 50 miles south of present-day Baghdad. Also within the borders of modern Iraq are such valuable ancient sites as the ruins of Ur, where Abraham was borne, and of Uruk not far from the banks of the Euphratis, which in Sumerian times was a cultural center and the royal residence. Then there was the Assyrian city of Nineveh farther north on the banks of the Tigris. Large settlements such as these, of course, needed administration. The temples needed to be maintained and cared for, irrigation of the surrounding fields needed to be scheduled and coordinated, trade and commerce needed to be regulated, and diseases needed to be cured. The anarchic societies that had emerged tacitly from the twilight of prehistory gradually structured themselves into hierarchical communities, ruled by dynasties in prosperous city-states and spread out amidst endless lush fields along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. With settlement came human organization and with organization came all the attributes of sophistication and culture. Sumeria had irreversibly entered the bright light of civilization.

To keep everything working in smooth order, however, records needed to be kept. So the Sumerians created the first-ever written language, consisting of roughly 2,000 pictographs...and one of the topics they wrote about was their beer. Once the Sumerians had learned to write about themselves and their beer-making, they became not only the world's first documented people to have given up the hunting and gathering lifestyle of prehistoric man, they also became the world's first documented brewers. We know from Sumerian records that, by the fourth millennium BC, this industrious society of scribes, farmers, and brewers used as much as half its annual grain harvest for beer.

Because we consider the dawn of Sumerian culture also the dawn of man's recorded history, there is sound reason to think that beer and human civilization began at roughly the same time...and humanity hasn't stopped brewing since. If for no other reason than that beer is intimately connected with the transition of mankind from primitive to civilized society, beer has a very special place in anthropology. As is clear from the archeological evidence, man and beer have had a close and unique relationship ever since the very beginning of society, and the link has been powerful and influential.

The First Beer Recipe

The very first Sumerian brew was probably made by sheer accident and must have been a rather primitive beverage by today's standards. A forgetful Sumerian baker--probably the lady of the house or her maid--might have left her dough out during one of Sumeria's infrequent rainstorms. When the rays of the returning sun warmed the earthenware mixing bowl, in which the dough was now immersed in water, it became a combination of mash tun and open fermenter (as we would say today), in which the grain's enzymes converted the dough's starches into sugars. Or, perhaps, a Sumerian family sat down for a bowl of bread dunked in water, perhaps flavored with honey, dates, or date syrup. For some reason, however, the meal was not finished. When the household re-assembled, perhaps a few days later, the bowls of gruel were still on the table. In either scenario, airborne yeasts might have converted the sugars in the gruel to alcohol. Perhaps out of innate curiosity, the careless baker or the returning family might have tasted the ale that was so inadvertently concocted and appreciated the sour, refreshing taste--and, perhaps, the heady after-effect as well. This is all speculation, perhaps an apocryphal legend, but it offers a fair generic description of how beer is made, and, because of the records we have found and because of the bio-chemistry involved in beer-making, which we now understand, these scenarios are quite plausible.

The Sumerians called bread "bappir." Bappir was perhaps similar to a mariner's hardtack during the age of sail. Sumerian bread could be stored for long periods without spoiling. Thus it was also a way to keep a reserve of food for hard times...and an ideal intermediate product for maintaining a reservoir of grain as a raw material for making beer throughout the year.

There must have been deliberate attempts to replicate the probably inadvertent dough brew from bappir, because eventually all Sumerian brewers would coarsely grind wheat or barley, or both, then moisten the grain and shape it into flat loaves. After gently baking these loaves in mud-brick ovens into bappir, they would it crumble it into crocks of water. Left to their own devices, the containers of thin bread gruel would eventually be visited by yeast spores swept into the crocks on a breeze and the content would ferment into beer. Our Sumerian Stone Age forbears would then take a straw or a ladle and imbibe. We know so, because the Sumerians left us not only the oldest description of beer-making, but also the oldest graphic depiction of beer drinking. It comes from a seal found at Ur. It dates from around 3100 BC and shows two gentlemen using straws to drink beer out of a common crock. Upper-class Sumerians used straws made of gold and lapis-lazuli. One such straw was found in the third millennium B.C. tomb of Pu-abi, a dignified lady of the city of Ur.

To Drink Beer Is to Be Human

Even the oldest work of literature known to man already talks of beer. This is the Sumerian epic of King Gilgamesh. It was written and rewritten by priests over centuries, and stored in temple vaults for scholarly reference. But only one rendition of about half the work, copied about 3,200 years ago on twelve tablets, has been found in the library of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh on the banks of the river Tigris. It is now in the Louvre in Paris. On the ninth tablet, incidentally, this epic tells about a deluge, which is probably the earliest historical reference to the great flood of the Old Testament. The Gilgamesh epic talks about the origin of man--as a descendent of a mythical beast called Enkidu--and about the role that beer and its transformative powers have played in that genesis.

The epic tells us that mighty Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu wandered the plains of Mesopotamia like prehistoric nomads--not in search of food, though, but in search of the key to immortality. Enkidu was an unkempt and unruly creature, half man, and half bull--a metaphor it seems of our own dual nature. He ate grass with the gazelles and shared their watering holes. When he found a hunter's trap, he would destroy it, thus acting as protector of his animal friends. But when Enkidu drank beer, he became man--one of us. Even if Descartes turns in his grave: Bibo cerevisiam, ergo sum! Here is how the epic tells the story:

The king of a cultured city called Uruk decided to befriend the wild creature and civilize him. Uruk is the biblical Erech and is now called Warka. It was the center of worship to the goddess Ninkasi. So he sent one of Ninkasi's temple maidens out to the plains with the mission to seduce Enkidu. When she found him, she initiated him into the deepest secrets of erotic ecstasy, after which she offered him a meal of bread and beer. "Enkidu knows not how to eat bread," she said, "nor how to drink beer." She then entreated him: "Eat bread, Enkidu, as it is part of life! Drink beer as it is the custom of the land." Then the epic continuous: "The wild beast Enkidu ate bread until he was sated. He then drank beer, seven crocks full. His spirit relaxed and became free. He started to talk in a loud voice. Well-being filled his body and his face turned bright. He washed his matted fleece with water and rubbed his body with oil, and Enkidu became human." In short, it's beer that makes us animated, it's beer that propels us to civilization, and it's beer that makes us human. By gentling Enkidu's animal nature, beer helped to define who we are! Now go tell that to abstemious teetotalers and neo-temperance zealots!

Beer, Bread, Community, and Peace

The Sumerian farmers apparently were a mostly peaceful people, and beer consumption among them was high. Clearly, bread and beer had equal status in Sumerian society. Communal beer drinking accompanied all great social occasions, especially funerals. Sumerian tombstones depict servants offering beer to the gods to coddle favor for the afterlife of the departed. The priests and priestesses, who helped the souls make that transition to the beyond, in accordance with established ritual, were paid in bread and beer for their ceremonial services. According to a hieroglyphic find dating from 2900 BC, a funeral cost seven urns of beer, a price that the ruler, King Urukagina, had to reduce to three urns as a result of popular discontent. It appears that the spiritual guardians of society, from the priests of Mesopotamia, to the bacchantes of Rome, to the monastics of medieval Europe, have always had a great predilection for the fermented beverage.

Brewing, practiced by both women and men in old Mesopotamia, became a respectable profession, but it was women who usually ran Sumerian public drinking establishments. These Stone Age forerunners of medieval alewives, were ladies of high standing and public influence, as we know from one beautiful Sumerian brewster and innkeeper by the name Kubaba. She founded an entire city called Kish around her pub, just a dozen miles northwest of Babylon. As Queen of Kish (as she was called) she organized periodic public feasts centered on ritual binge drinking, and she used her feminine charms to rule her city and her people in happiness, peace, and prosperity.

The Sumerians of old Mesopotamia turned golden fields of grain into golden rivers of beer, they imbibed, and they prospered. As time went on, they formed a checkerboard of organized communities, which we now call city-states. The Sumerians found that collective organization was an effective means for pooling their resources for civic projects, such as irrigation, and for staging rituals that would ensure divine benefaction for the continuation of their agrarian-based wealth.

While the Sumerians' accomplishments and "firsts" in agriculture, pottery, smelting, and arithmetic, have made tremendous contributions to the social, intellectual and economic evolution of mankind, their beer, perhaps more than any other of their creations, has had the greatest lasting impact on humanity's culture. Beer helped the Sumerians as mortal creatures to forge a union with their gods, with their past, and with their future. It thus defined to them what it was to be human in the present, a lesson that mankind has never forgotten.

Beer, Eros, and Salvation

As Sumeria blossomed, so did the rituals reserved for the great mother goddess Ninkasi, the source of all joy and pleasure. Her worshippers tried to emulate ever more passionately the nefarious traits over which she presided in the beyond. They gladly sacrificed before her shrines and in her temples, offering up to her a daily abundance of grain and beer, and the occasional goat. The goddess herself, of course, would partake only of the beer's soul. Then the worshippers and the temple's priestesses had to step up to the plate and consume the donated beer's material manifestation, often until intoxication transported them into a new state of awareness. In many temples, therefore, beer usually ran out well before everybody had reached the proper state of licentious comportment required for the ritual occasion. So the temples started to set up their own breweries, usually run by the sorority of priestess-brewsters--a custom emulated, in subsequent periods, by the other great cultures of mid-eastern antiquity, that of the Babylonians/Assyrians and the Egyptians.

The hymn of Ninkasi (here from a translation by Miguel Civil), the goddes is described as the model Sumerian brewster: "Ninkasi, you are the one who handles...the bappir with date-honey...who bakes the bappir in the big oven...who soaks the malt in a jar. The waves rise, the waves fall...When you pour out the is like the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates."

On feast days, the populace would convene at the temples of Ninkasi to join in eating bread and drinking beer. They knew that the gods would be convened above do the same in their realm. Such communal carousing often culminated in ecstasy, when all inhibitions faded and the revelers reached a state of being that was held to be beneficial for both spiritual well being of both the immortal gods and their mortal followers. The faithful would throw themselves with abandon into their intoxicated joy, while the gods would lose their fear and thus fight ever more courageously against all the adversities that might afflict their people below. As the alcohol spread its glow among the worshippers, the priestesses would carry forth with erotic songs and dances designed to arouse themselves, the great mother goddess Ninkasi, and the gathered crowd before them. The priestesses would then turn into maidens of easy virtue, and a Sumerian chap could consider himself lucky, if he was chosen at such an occasion to consummate with one of them the ultimate act of fertility--and to do so before the assembled multitude for the greater pleasure of the divine goddess of lust.

Ninkasi herself had set the example for such public orgies. According to Sumerian myth, she is reputed to have declared: "When I sit at the city gate, in front of a tavern, I am a loving whore, who knows all men." So, with their goddess' blessing the priestesses turned their temple taverns onto brothels, dispensing both libatious and libidinous pleasures for the satisfaction of the spirit and the flesh alike.

The king himself was not exempt from paying carnal homage to the mighty deity. At the feast of the New Year, which commenced with the clarion call of trumpets from the temple steps, the priestesses, dressed in veils, assembled before the high priestess, who at that moment was presumed to embody Ninkasi, the goddess of love herself. The steamy fertility ritual that was about to unite the secular with the spiritual leader of Sumeria started out seductively with the ceremonial drinking of a special sweet beer fortified with dates, herbs, honey, sesame, ginger, hemp, and nightshade--a psychedelic potion, which the Sumerians regarded as an aphrodisiac. Then the priestess-brewsters bathed the high priestess to prepare her divine womb for the visit by the earthly king. Next she was laid upon a bed scented with essence of cedar. There she received the royal favor in vicarious hierogamy--a sacred marriage between spirit and flesh, from which the Sumerians believed, would spring forth a new vernal crop and an ample autumn harvest.

In Sumeria, beer was the magical medium for the people's communion with the divine, a potion that ensured public harmony and kept society at a seemingly low level of overt conflict. The objectives of early-civilized man were few, as we can glean from the works of Sumerian penmanship that have come down to us through the eons of time. The purpose of Sumerian life was--perhaps surprising and incongruous by modern standards--a mixture of both industry and hedonism, all for a transcendent cause. For the Sumerians, who had just stepped out of the twilight of prehistory into the collective awareness of what we call civilization, it was beer that allowed them to maintain a link to their misty past and to make sense of the world around them in their ordered present. Their beers flourished with their culture. It was the sacred drink, the gift from the gods, which the Sumerians, in turn, offered back to the gods in ritualistic sacrifice during ceremonies of communal intoxication and erotic arousal.

There was bread and beer, and joy and worship, lust and devotion...and peace. This does not mean that Sumerians did not have their wars and conflicts; they did, mostly between their various city-states. But martial ways were never at the center of their social organization. Yet over the millennia of Sumerian evolution, there were other tribes that had followed the Sumerian's path from hunter-gatherers to settled civilizations...civilizations, whose emphasis was more on the martial than the brewing arts. As Mesopotemia began to be drawn into the larger, Mediterranean context of antiquity, with Assyrian, Persian, Egyptian, and later Greek and Roman power on the rise, not surprisingly--even predictably--the Sumerians were being conquered and gradually assimilated. By the beginning of the second millennium BC, they had essentially vanished from history, but their contributions to civilization, including their beer, though orphaned, survived them, to be carried forth in new directions by their successors, the new writers of history...but that tale of beer's meandering, post-Sumerian fate is a yarn for another day.

By Horst Dornbusch

Horst Dornbusch is a world-renowned author, beer industry guru, host of, and author of Horst Dornbusch on Beer and Civilization - an exclusive column featured on

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