This week: Ancient alcohol

Wall painting from Herculaneum depicting a banquet, housed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. The male figure is shown drinking from a type of vessel called a rhyton. Upon the table is a set of silver vessels for mixing wine. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

History, as we know, has been driven by the complicated love affair between humans and booze. Writing in the fourth-century BC, the Greek philosopher Plato summed it up for many, when he observed: ‘He was a wise man who invented beer.’

Nearly 3,000 years on, scientists now believe this ancient taste for alcohol predates our existence as a species. According to one theory – winningly known as the ‘Drunken Monkey Hypothesis’ – it may even have helped kick off human evolution itself, by luring our primate ancestors down from the trees in search of fermenting fruit.

More certainly, we can see that tools for the production of alcohol were in use in China as far back as 7,000 BC, and that by 4,000 BC, wine had started to appear in Egyptian pictographs. By the time Pompeii was in its Roman heyday – as we discover this week on The Past – the city streets were literally awash with evidence of its inhabitants’ desire for liquid refreshment.

In the latest edition of Current World Archaeology, Andrew Selkirk invites you on a fascinating crawl around the pubs of Pompeii – all 163 of them – and asks: what do these establishments tell us about society at the time?

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been searching in the archives for more about alcohol consumption in the ancient world: we visited the 1,500-year-old complex thought to be the largest wine-production centre of the Byzantine period; we returned to Pompeii to study a bloodthirsty fresco uncovered recently in a tavern close to the gladiators’ barracks; and we visited a palace in Israel to find out what its extensive wine cellar can tell us about life and luxury in Bronze Age Galilee.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around the history of alcohol. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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