Stoned Age Recrudescing

By R. D. Flavin


     Last Sunday, 3-17-13, The New York Times ran an article on “How Beer Gave Us Civilization,” taking a side in the long running debate over whether bread or beer was “invented” first (Kavanagh 1994).  A previous NYT article from 1987, “Does Civilization Owe a Dept to Beer?,” was rather ambivalent.  Archaeologists, prehistorians, and others are still adjusting to radiocarbon dating (Arnold & Libby 1949), radiocarbon dating calibrated with dendrochronology (Rainey & Ralph 1966, Suess 1967, Renfrew 1973), and the recent tweaking dubbed “The Second Radiocarbon Revolution,” which uses Bayesian reasoning (Bayliss 2009, Whittle, Healy & Bayliss 2011).  Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic dating is almost in a perpetual flux as recently much has been debated about the why, how and when as to the origin(s) of agriculture (Current Anthropology. 2011 “The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas.” Vol. 52, No. S4.).  And, we revisit the bread or beer debate, yet again.  However, this Stoned Age recrudescing is a little more interesting this time around.

     I've opined in my columns several times over some fourteen years that a cereal gruel or porridge was contaminated by an airborne natural yeast, it bubbled in the process of fermentation, and some wild and crazy cave-dude drank the first beer.   I've reasoned that a soaking technology, such as was likely previously used with peas, beans, and legumes, was applied to grains to soften them into edibility.  Gruel and beer, its fermented offspring, probably predated bread, yet better studies of Neolithic grinding stones for datable phytoliths may change my opinion.  Apparently, my “soaking technology” hasn't caught on, though I think I'm number six at The Google.  Still, I'm unsure how to test my thesis and need to off-load onto a professional.  Volunteers, e-mail me!  Actually, I've guessed that a low-moisture gruel was accidentally spilled on a hot rock and the resulting paleo-flatbread had to make do until the individual home ovens at Çatalhöyük, ca. 7500 to 5700 BCE.

Ancient fossil evidence for Papaver somniferum in the Swiss Foreland and surrounding areas (Merlin 2003, Fig. 6).

     It's been speculated that proto- and early humans may have gotten high, indeed, some have imagined plant drugs to have contributed to Handy Homo's cleverness, some to language, and not that long ago, to the marvelous cave-art in France and Spain.  The amazing religious philosopher, Houston Smith, has remarked that hallucinations and tremors are indistinguishable between a very bad infection and after the ingestion of a hallucinogen (var. entheogen, “God Within Us plant”).  Solid evidence of early narcotic usage with the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) exists for the Neolithic (Merlin 2003), and I can envision possible opium usage for the Upper Paleolithic (to treat pain or go into a trance, not to accomplish quality art).  Hemp is attested equally early in Central Asia as rope-fiber, and then in historic times with the odd Scythian and later Greek burning of cannabis seeds to supposedly produce an intoxicating smoke.  While the flowering tops and leaves of cannabis contain the dreamy-giggley THC, the seeds contain barely a trace of THC and are widely used to produce an oil and as bird-seed.  Me thinks the smoking brazers contained some buds, but they haven't survived in the archaeological record.  The Solanaceae appear in Greek accounts of werewolves, known by their scraps, bruises, and hollow eyes, after an all-nighter of wrapping a wolf-pelt around their middle,rubbing a solanaceae paste under their arms , and howling at the moon (Harner 1973).  Lucian Apuleius wrote The Golden Ass, also known as The Metamorphoses, ca. mid-second century CE, with a hot scene of a naked witch who rubbed some solanaceae paste on her body and turned into a bird.  Beginning in the Iron Age and early Medieval times, European drug rituals abounded with Cú Chulainn (the “Hound of Culann”) and his Riastarthae (var. Ríastrad), his “warp-spasm” warrior intoxication, akin to the later Norse with their berserkr (“wearer of a bear-skin”) rage, and, of course, more witches and broom sticks.  The Solanaceae family of plants occupy a dark place in European history, and perhaps its prehistory, as well.

     Archaeologists and archaeobotanists (var. paleobotanists and paleoethnobotanists) are always busy walking down the up escalator, as any discovery of ancient remains is an exercise in luck.   Still, the fortuitous recovery of this or that artifact helps contribute to the greater good as increasing knowledge is what it's all about.  As investigations plod along, combined with new and better archaeological and dating tools, guesses are transformed into facts and our 'picture' of the past becomes clearer.  As it has with our oldest examples of beer and wine in Iran, China, and Egypt (passim Sicard & Legras 2011) ...and we await more work on the European Neolithic.  Me thinks it's about the money...

Old European Linear inscription on a spindle whorl from a Vinca site in Serbia, formerly south-central Yugoslavia, c. 5000-4500 BCE. (after Bennett/Gimbutas).

     The work of the late Marija Gimbutas (b. 1921 – d. 1994) brought to public awareness the possible religious practices of the European Neolithic (and Chalcolithic or Eneolithic).  The many incised pottery items in a wide variety of forms (decorated with the “Old European Script” which includes the famous Vinča-Turdaş signs) seem tantalizing projects for testing.  Perhaps a Stoned Age solanaceae paste residue may be discovered one day...   Well, one can hope...

     And, back to beer and bread...  Anheuser-Busch has unleashed a couple of ads and Tweets in response to a new class-action lawsuit alleging that the company waters down its Budweiser beer.  Jim Koch has announced that we'll be able to sample the “Sam Can” in early summer, that is, Samuel Adams Boston Lager in a can.  And, a federal bankruptcy judge has approved the sale of Wonder Bread to Flowers Foods, so America will have its (in)famous bread back on the shelves before one can say peanut butter and jelly a dozen times in Sanskrit backwards...  I could go on about medical marijuana in twenty states (and the District of Columbia), or revisit the Stoned Age opium trade in Afghanistan with the Taliban, but I've heard that some stores are selling Lil' Debbie's (née Hostess) Chocolate Cupcakes...  Yeah, I've got the munchies...


Arnold, J. R. and W. F. Libby. 1949. “Age Determinations by Radiocarbon Content: Checks with Samples of Known Age.” Science. 110, 2869: 678-680.

Bayliss, Alex. 2009. “Rolling Out Revolution: Using Radiocarbon Dating in Archaeology.” Radiocarbon. 51,1: 123–147.

Harner, Michael J. 1973. “The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft.” Hallucinogens and Shamanism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kavanagh, Thomas W. 1994. “Archaeological Parameters for the Beginnings of Beer.” Brewing Techniques. 2, 5. Online here.

Merlin, M. D. 2003. “Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World.” Economic Botany. 57, 3: 295-323.

Renfrew, Colin. 1973. Before Civilization: The Radiocarbon Revolution and Prehistoric Europe. New York: Knopf/Random House.

Sicard, Delphine and Jean-Luc Legras. 2011. “Bread, Beer and Wine: Yeast Domestication in the Saccharomyces sensu Complex.” Comptes Rendus Biologies. 334, 3: 229-236.

Suess, H. E. 1967. “Bristlecone Pine Calibration of the Radiocarbon Time Scale from 4100 BC to 1500 BC.” Radioactive dating and methods of low-level counting; proceedings of a symposium organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency in co-operation with the Joint Commission on Applied Radioactivity (ICSU) and held in Monaco, 2-10 March, 1967. STI/PUB/152; pp. 143-151. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency.

Whittle, A. W. R., Healy, F. M. A. and Bayliss, A. 2011. Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

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