This article in this month’s National Geographic tells a story that seems increasingly common: fermentation, specifically alcoholic fermentation, provided one of the great impetuses for civilization (see also: Discovery‘s How Beer Saved the World ). This definition of that loaded term, civilization, typically revolves around the adoption of agriculture, and with it, less nomadic lifestyles and more specialization. This turns more conventional wisdom on its head: beer is not a cultural artifact; rather, culture is a byproduct of fermentation (it’s worth noting New York’s Sixpoint Brewery’s slogan: “Beer is Culture”). As the article notes, on version of this is called the “drunken monkey” hypothesis, but that doesn’t quite seem to capture it. I think I’ll go with the “tipsy neolith” hypothesis for now.
As is also the case with civilization stories revolving around meat consumption (a previous research topic of mine), this portrayal of human history as the increasingly organized pursuit of a high-value good/food is steeped in certain ways of reading and understanding evolutionary and cultural theory. These readings tend to both naturalize human alcohol consumption (Patrick McGovern’s half-joking “Homo imbibens” designation), to conflate biological and cultural evolution (monkey ancestors learning to eat fermenting fruit and developing an ethanol-digesting enzyme), and to understand a mess of complex and highly contingent evolutionary processes as a simple race for calories (fermented fruit=more calories=more offspring?). The story in this article even naturalizes moderation, noting that “a truly drunken monkey… would be an easy target for predators.” These speculative human histories also create a history of human cultural development that is notably empty of stratification or power of any sort. This article is written using a universalizing “we” to describe humans throughout.
Whatever the problems with these stories, however, they do convey a point that I echo in this project: the productive and reproductive cultures of humans and microbes (whether in booze or bread—curiously no mention of porridge here) have long been entangled. And while any kind of causality is difficult to extract from this knot (and surely also from ancient pottery sherds), humans and microbes continue to become with one another (Haraway 2008). What it means to be human and to be microbe is in flux in collective ferments. So what kind of humans do these “tipsy neoliths” become? What kinds of microbes are their companions? And what kinds worlds do they create together?