Patrick McGovern – the “Beer Archaeologist”

Photograph by Landon Nordeman

Any student of ancient civilization recognizes the importance that alcohol has played on the development of our cultural past. When we all started living together densely (a.k.a. – civilization), food and water became immediate, problematic needs as pollution (generally in the form of human waste) destroyed our resources. Water was generally a dangerous drink (as any traveller to Mexico has discovered) and alcohol was a safe alternative – the fermentation process often killed or prevented the growth of dangerous bacteria and parasites. In fact, in ancient Egypt, a common breakfast was a hunk of bread and a bucket of beer.

One man has made his name on the study of alcohol in the ancient world, specifically the role it played in our own cultural and social evolution – Patrick McGovern. “Dr. Pat” is the world’s foremost expert on ancient booze, but his expertise expands beyond the rate of hops or blended barleys. As an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, he has travelled the world, poured over manuscripts, and excavated the remnants of ancient distilleries, breweries, and wineries in his quest to further understand humanity’s relationship with intoxicating beverages.

To read more about this topic and learn about Patrick McGovern’s work, check out the article in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine.

7 thoughts on “Patrick McGovern – the “Beer Archaeologist”

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Pun is always intended 😉
      Check out the article. It’s rather lengthy but very, very interesting and the pictures are stunning! I also engage in some of his practices – purely from a scientific standpoint of course. As an Anthropologist, I must engage in local customs.

      1. Jim Wheeler

        And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
        And robb’d me of my Robe of Honor — well,
        I often wonder what the Vintners buy
        One half so precious as the Goods they sell. – Omar Khayyam

  1. Jim Wheeler

    A worthy mention here, Jennifer. I subscribe to Smithsonian and saw this, and of course you and I have discussed the topic before. I had not appreciated the presence of alcohol in the New World before that. I still have a sense that Native Americans did not have the same degree of exposure and were not affected genetically in the way Europeans were, and I’m wondering if that might be due to their more nomadic nature. If so, there would be significant genetic differences as to alcohol-tolerance among the tribes, since some were more nomadic than others. Any thoughts?


    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      You know, I don’t know as much about New World peoples as I do about the Old World. One thing I think that you are forgetting is that the New World peoples were not all nomadic – the peoples of Meso and South America had expansive and enduring Empires that practiced agriculture and all of the nuances that come with a sedentary culture and agriculture-based civilization. Even in North American, with the Puebla and the “Mound Builders,” there were several (albeit smaller) non-nomadic civilizations. Additionally, there are tons of nomadic cultures with fermented beverages (thing of the Mongols or the Huns). Let’s not forget that not only did they have alcohol, but they also had a number of psychotropic drugs (the most famous marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogenic plants). Interestingly, even though they introduced the Europeans to tobacco, not a lot of tobacco addiction amongst the Native Americans….
      I really do think it’s an element of that “warrior gene” you and I discussed. When we look at those who survive genocide, there seems to be a prevalence of those who carry both the genetics of a ‘survivalist instinct’ as well as addiction. Even going back before the arrival of the Spanish, when you look at the practices of warfare and human sacrifice that had been going on in the New World – it was a hard life (to say the least) and seems to be the recipe for the take-off of addiction. Even non exposure, alcoholism isn’t a disease that you ‘catch’ nor is it developed because people don’t know how to ‘drink appropriately.’ It really does seem to be a combination of genetics and trauma. And yes, there is a strong element of that genetic component amongst Native Americans (especially in certain tribes – Cherokee Indians have an overwhelming rate of addiction).
      Honestly, I wish we could get a specialist in addiction to read and comment on this phenomenon. They would know far more than I on this topic and could probably provide much better insight.


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