tisdag 30 december 2008

Do spit in your cup!

Note to Swedish readers: The following text is written in English since it is part of the 4 Stone Hearth New Year Blog Carnival, hosted by Testimony of the Spade.

In the 3rd millenium BC, there existed over large parts of Europe a number of different cultures often grouped together by archaeologists under the term Beaker cultures. These included the Bell Beaker culture as well as various regional versions of the Corded Ware culture. Some wish to include even archaeological groups in Russia and the Ukraine. Their definitions, and relationship to each others, is an old infected debate. What is it that has everyone so excited, and what’s so special about these pottery beakers? Apart from the fact that they are very pretty and share many similar traits across the continent, there are two other aspects archaeologists have gotten excited about: For one, they are very often included as a burial gift i single graves. But more importantly, they are generally interpreted as ceremonial drinking vessels.

We know that humans have had a very close (too close) relationship to alcohol for a very long time. Making a fermented beverages is not as easy as it may seem, even once you know how it is done. The oldest evidence of making something more thrilling than berry juice follows on the heels of agriculture in China, and by the 4th millennium at least in Mesopotamia and Egypt . Starch is a basic ingredient if you want alcohol, and it didn’t take long for the first farmes to figure out that cereals and rice had a lot of starch in them. But you also need sugar, lots of sugar, to keep the fermentation process going. This was especially important when only primitive methods were at hand, since oxygen kills off the yeast unless sugar is there to give a little extra energy boost. It is possible that the knowledge of making alcohol came hand in hand with agriculture to Northern Europe in the 6th to 4th millenia BC, but the evidence is at best theoretical at this stage.

The 3rd millennium beakers, however, have yielded some concrete results: An early corded ware beaker found in Denmark in the 1990’s had a preserved carbonized crust which on closer inspection by electron microscope showed the presence of barley starch, that had probably been fermented. A bell beaker from Scotland contained extremely large quantities of lime pollen that indicated it had held a honey rich beverage (mead). Four bell beakers from Spain contained starch from wheat that had definitely been fermented.

So starch is available through grains, and sugar is avalable through honey and berries – but what about yeast? It’s not enough to cram cereals and a dollop of honey into a pot with water and wait for magic to happen. For the process to kick off we need enzymes – amylase to be more specific – to turn the starch into sugars, and then the sugars into alcohol. Amylase can be attained in three ways:
1. By adding yeast. Which is what brewers do today. But the right type of yeast is not something you find growing under any old wicker basket. Once you have it it can be saved and reused, but getting it in the first place is the real hassle.
2. Malting the cereal. Germinating the grains in water, and then removing and roasting them creates malt, which contains amylase.
3. Chewing the cereals. It just so happens that our saliva contians the right type of enzyme for this process (blessed be Ninkasi), and chewing the grains starts the modification process.

What is interesting is that there is in the old folklores and sagas of Fennoscandia, an outspoken connection between spit and alcohol. The Norse god Kvasir is made out of spit from both Vanir and Aesir gods collected in a pot. When he is later slain, his blood is used by his killers to brew the Mead of Poetry, which in turn is later stolen by Oden in the guise of an eagle who – you guessed it – spat it out in new containers. In Finnish Kalevala, the beer that the witch-queen Louhi brews for her daughter’s wedding feast contains the spittle from a bear as well as honey.

So in conclusion, the old Swedish saying “don’t spit in your cup” (spotta inte i glaset), is patently wrong!
Happy New Year and Skål!

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8 kommentarer:

Mikael Hiort af Ornäs sa...

[petimäter] Borde inte din "Note to Swedish readers" vara på svenska? [/petimäter] :)

Very interesting post. It made me think about a few things.

First. In SLU's base course for the attainment of the qualifications in sciences and biology needed for being admitted to a university masters degree program (Sw. "Naturvetenskaplig bastermin"), we have a laboratory experiment where the students make vanilla custard. They are to pour the still warm and not yet gelated custard into three cups; one left as it is, one with added amylase and lactase, and one in which they spit. Hopefully they will experience how the spat-mixed custard stays ungelated, just as the enzyme+custard mixture.

Second. The word "spottkopp" (Eng. "spitting cup") is perhaps not used much these days, unless you are into marshal arts or boxing. But it is used as a nickname for the big hole in the floor, surrounded by a fence, in the middle of the street level floor of the Stockholm Central train station. I always meet up with my relatives by (the) "Spottkoppen" when I take the train to Stockholm. Luckily, I've never seen anyone actually spit into the "Spitting Cup". There are people on the bottom floor as well, you see :)

tingotankar sa...

That is a wonderful example with the custard! I will definately make use of it in any future lecture on the subject that I may give.
Perhaps with the caveat: Do NOT do this at home...unless you mark the cups clearly.

[Jag skrev på engelska för att inte utsocknes läsare skulle få för sig att det var ett hemligt meddelande...som det här] ;-)

Anonym sa...

I wonder if it could be that alcohol was the reason for people to start cultivating grass for the seeds, since it would have meant a lot more work to get food than hunting, so if the hunting begun getting bad they would have just moved on like they allways had done, unless they had a very compelling reason to stay. The first grasses to be cultivated must have been like most wild grasses today, a few small seeds on eatch straw that fell off when they were mature. To make even the most primitive cerials we find today must have taken generations of selective breeding and before that the crops would hardly have been worth the effort, unless they knew they were getting something much more valuable than food.

At least that is an interesting theory that maybe could be a better explanation for an important part of the evolution av human society.

So if humans hadn't been so fond of alcohol we would never have developed so many of modern societys blessings like large scale ware, global pandemies, dictatorship, the "honor cultures" and so on. :-)

tingotankar sa...

Kenneth - that very idea has been very seriously discussed in archaeology the past few decades. In 1984 Kristina Jennbert published a dissertation called "Den produktiva gåvan" (The productive gift) that argued agriculture was introduced in Scandinavia not primarily for subsistence but as a form of prestige production. Diet analyses have shown that the early farmers did not live on cereals to any great degree - though cattle might have been important.

Andrew Sherratt has argued that there is proof of using poppy plants to produce at least mild narcotics in the early agricultural cultures in Europe, others have been discussing various evidence for fermentation among the early farmers in Mesopotamia.

The biggest problem with the "alcohol-theory" for establishment of agriculture is that we have no direct proof for this earlier than the 4th century in the Middle East - as yet. Lipid analysis on pottery might give us some profound new insights in the future. Agriculture on the other hand is about 9000 years old in the region.

Anonym sa...

That is really interesting, but when argriculture came to northern europe I believe i was with imported seeds that already was much more productive than the original wild varieties, so it could possibly have been a viable source of food, but when agriculture first started in the region between Eufrat and Tigris it would be almost absurd to think of all the work for very little food, if it indeed was for food. I have a hard time believing that. On the other hand if the main source of food was meat from wild and/or domesticated animals there would have been lots of free time for hobby projects like growing and developing crops to make alcohol and maybe poppys, cannabis and other drugs.
Most of the aboriginal beople still remaining who are mainly hunters usually spend on the average a few hours a week to secure their food supply, the rest of the time is free to do whatever they like. One good example is the San people in africa. The North American Indians was very well documented while they still lived like their ancestors, mainly by Weston A Price, the foundation with his name is still active and can be found at westonaprice.org where possibly parts of the information could be of some interest for archeologists to? After all, they where still hunter- gatherers and still well familiar with tools used before they came in contact with iron and other metals. All such hunter- gatherer people also have remarkably good health, until they start eating modern food.

One thing that I look forward to from the new ways of analyzing pottery is how far back we will find milk protein, there is a neated debate among proponents of paleolithical food whether milk products in some form could have been part of a paleolithic diet? It doesn't sound too far fetched to me that nomad animal herders existed a long time before the advent of agriculture, and that they used the animals milk.

Anonym sa...

Now it's up on the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival; the New Year edition. Thanks a lot for your contribution.

Happy New Year

Magnus Reuterdahl

tingotankar sa...

As you say, the crops that arrived in Europe were already the result of intense modification and quite usable as food - which is not the same thing as people actually using them foor food. Many low-tech farners today choose to take the bulk of their crop and make beer from it, while living on wild plants, hunted and domesitcated animals.

The domestication of plants in Middle East was a very, very long affair - probably going on through many generations of gatherers actively favouring certain good plants, taking care of their habitats, selecting to leave some etc. So by the time that we find sedentary low-tech actual farmers, the main processes had already been completed.

I believe that most of these early cereals were indeed used as food, and that it took awhile to figure out how to make alcohol - maybe several thousand years. But cereal products like unleavened bread and porridge might still have been prestige foods served at special occasions. At least in areas of Europe where that part of the economy was very low key. The domesticated animals were probably as important or more important as a source of sedentary life at the beginning.

Archaeologists have used anthropological studies of hunters and farmers as inspiration and information since the very start - we were in the beginning virtually the same subject and in America anthropology is virtually synonymous with archaeology and they belong the same departments. Personally, I studied cultural anthropology at Uppsala, which was extremely interesting.

Anonym sa...

I agree that it would be good if more of the different diciplines in scinece cold cooperate, I think archeology and mutritional science would have much to learn from eatch other too. Maybe those in nutritional science then could learn that animal fats actually have been a very important food for us, and that vegetable oils is something that has never been a part of mans evolution. I don't believe that there were many sources av vegetable oil until quite recently. Olive oil is probably the only oil that have been used for any length of time, and probably for most of that time as lamp oil.

The thought that saturated animal fat shold be bad for us is an invention of Mr Ancel Keys from the 1940's, which he did show in a study that has been shown to be scientific fraud.

A very interesting person I have seen on TV recently is paleoarchaeobotanist Gordon Hillman who has been a long time friend and companion of Ray Mears in his programs on survival techniques and research in the survival skills of aboriginal people from all over the world. The show puts much focus on how to collect carbohydrates, but at the same time that shows how time consuming and labour intensive that is in comparison to hunting and fishing.