Which came first, bread or beer?

The very possibility that we brewed beer before we baked bread sounds–well–it sounds sexy.  How titillating to think that people rushed to make something intoxicating.  How mind bending to think that farming was all in aid of a bit of tipple.

When I first heard the idea, I was as titillated and mind bent as could be.  Over the years, though, I’ve come to think it’s actually the wrong way to go about the early history of cereals.  It’s a barrier to asking the kinds of questions that will yield interesting answers.

One of the truisms of the history of technology, a field I labored in for many years, was that asking who invented something, or when something first appeared was asking the wrong question.

Let me take a modern example from food. “Who invented the pineapple upside down cake?” It’s the kind of question food editors in newspapers get asked all the time.  The immediate response is to scurry around searching through magazines and cookbooks for the first pineapple upside down cake recipe and then annoint Mrs. X of Cakeville the inventor of the cake.

What have we learned?  Zilch.  Well, more likely we’ve learned that Mrs. X has staked her fame on a dubious priority claim.

Now suppose we ask different questions.  Why were people interested in cakes?  What were the preconditions for these kinds of cakes? What problems did pineapple upside down cakes solve?

Now we can begin to talk.  Oversimplifying a bit, the preconditions for cakes are molds, enclosed ovens, chemical leaveners, fine white sugar, and fine white flour.  When did these become available?  At the tail end of the nineteenth century.

Why does anyone want to make cakes?  The housewife wants to look cool, modern and sophisticated, her family like the treat, the  big millers in Minnesota want to sell more flour. Cake hits all those notes.  There’s a nice alliance of interests between the housewife and industry.

Just a little later,  Jim Dole began an advertizing blitz for a cool new ingredients, canned Hawaiian pineapple, that combined  cosmopolitan sophistication and tropical exoticism. Bingo.  Lots of people were going to simultaneously invent some kind of pineapple cake.

So back to bread and beer.  If I were tackling the question of why we turned to grains or cereals, I be asking questions like these:

What problems did grains solve, what tools did humans have?

The problem they solved was one of how to get enough fuel (calories) in the human body. Because as food for young plants grains are dense little packets of calories with a wide range of nutrients.  Provided you can process them using fewer calories than you use digesting the processed product, they are some of the best sources of fuel to be found.


bannocks 1

Breads had other advantages too that we might not think about if we think of bread as being like our puffy white loaves. Breads  were probably more like the bannock in the photograph, something that Gilgamesh or Plato might have called bread. They were baked pastes which can be produced in a  variety of ways.  They are are portable, dividable into equal portions, act as spoons or plates, keep you satisfied for a long time, great for people on the move.

Beers, too, have lots of calories, as well as that appealing buzz. They are as unlike our beer as early breads are unlike our bread. They were probably thickish soupy slightly alcoholic things that again can be produced in a variety of ways.  They can be stretched with water to serve lots of people. The downside is that they are not easy to move around, to take when hunting or traveling or foraging at a distance.

If people wanted a high, there were other options. There are many psychotropic plants from mushrooms to datura.  Alcohol can be prepared from honey where there are bees, from saps from palms, agaves, and perhaps teosinte (palm wine, pulque, etc), and from sweet wild fruits (though many wild fruits weren’t sweet).

Why, though, was the choice one of beer or bread?  If people were going to all the trouble of tackling tiny, fiddly seeds weren’t they going to try everything they could? Gruels, porridges thick enough to scoop up with the fingers, pottages cooked with roots, greens, and perhaps a bit of meat, toasted grains, powdered toasted grains, soaked grains, sprouted grains, chewed grains, grains with molds?

By about 20,000 years ago when humans began tackling grains, one of the most difficult of food resources to turn into something edible, they were  smart experimenters.  They had been surveying the earth for things to eat for thousands and thousands of years.

They had all kinds of  techniques at their fingertips–different kinds of hearth cookery; pit cookery;  probably treating with mud, water, weak acids, and strong alkalis; probably various kinds of rotting and molds.  They knew about pounding for sure.  They had been grinding rocks for pigments (and like rocks, grains are hard).  They had super sharp stone knives and a wide variety of containers. They came to the grains with lots of technical baggage.

So I assume people were going to boil grains, toast grains, pound grains, grind grains, sprout grains, rot grains, dunk grains in acids and alkalis to see what were the best ways of making them digestible.

They were going to be satisfied only if the results were reproducible (another lesson I gleaned from the history of technology).  Making an alcoholic brew (which can be done in at least three radically different ways) or a bread, both fairly tricky operations, is only worth it if you can do it on a regular basis.  Sitting around remembering that lovely thing you produced that made you feel so good isn’t much use if you can’t pull the trick off again.  Most ways of making bread and beer are multistage operations and from earliest records were done by professionals.

So instead of asking bread or beer, I’d rather ask: What can you do to grains with grindstones, mortars, acids, molds, rots, alkalis, and so on?

Which is why I like to fiddle around with grindstones and mortars.  Until we get a grip on what you can and can’t do with them, it’s all just idle speculation.


“Symposium: Did Man Once Live By Bread Alone,” American Anthropologist 55 (1953), 15-526;

Solomon H. Katz and Mary M. Voigt, “Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet,” Expedition 28, 23-34.

Solomon H. Katz and Fritz Maytag, “Brewing an Ancient Beer,” Archaeology    (1991), 24-33.

Thomas W. Kavanagh, “Archaeological Parameters for the Beginnings of Beer,” Brewing Techniques (1994);

Delwen Samuel, “Rediscovering Ancient Egyptian Beer,” Brewers’ Guardian 124 (1995), 26-31.

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