A listserve I subscribe to offers a regular smorgasbord of news and announcements relative to ancient Near Eastern studies. An article on Sumerian beer recently caught my eye. I’m not a big fan of beer, but I’m keen on Sumerian culture and literature, so I thought it would be worth a look.

In the upper register, Sumerian men use reeds to drink beer from a communal jug. The article, a preprint offering from the amazing Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, is a dense 20-page paper in which Peter Damerow of the Max Planck Institute of the History of Science in Berlin surveys what can be known about Sumerian beer brewing (to find the article, click on this link and scroll down to “Sumerian Beer: the Origins of Brewing Technology in Ancient Mesopotamia,” which opens as a PDF file).

It turns out that the Sumerians, who developed the earliest written language we know of, talked (and wrote) about beer quite a bit. Unfortunately, most of the preserved documents (on clay tablets, in both proto-Sumerian pictographs and Sumerian cuneiform) deal with things like accounting receipts for deliveries of grain and malt, tax records on beer sales, and the city-state government’s regulation of taverns.

Beer is mentioned in Sumerian myths such as the Gilgamesh epic, which is best known from later Babylonian and Assyrian versions, but has Sumerian roots. It’s Siduri, the barmaid, who tells Gilgamesh that he’d be better off if he’d learn to enjoy the life he has rather than questing for immortality.

What the Sumerian documents don’t include is a recipe or instruction manual for just how they went about making the beer. Modern linguists have learned a lot of the words that Sumerians used (including nine different words for different kinds of beer, and as many types of beer jugs), but they can’t always be certain what the words refer to. Does ninda mean bread, as usual, or when applied to beer, does it mean something else? Does munu mean malt? Does bappir describe a type of prepared barley, or something else?

The closest thing we have to a written description of beer-making is in the well-known (well, well-known if you’re into Sumerian literature) Hymn to Ninkasi, a the patron goddess of beer-making (and drinking). The hymn speaks of making bappir dough and mixing it with sweet aromatics before baking in some way, fermenting grains by covering them with earth and moisenting the mixture, mashing and fermenting and storing the finished product. The hymn leaves out several steps, and there’s the aforesaid problem with vocabulary, so the exact process isn’s certain.

What is clear is that Sumerians loved their beer. In fact, the article referenced a theory that the discovery of beer was a prime motivator for human development through the “Neolithic Revolution,” or emergence into the “New Stone Age,” when hunter-gatherers came down from the hills, settled in the alluvial plain of Mesopotamia, and began farming on a serious scale. They liked the intoxicating effects of beer so well, the theory goes, that they had to adapt the culture in order to produce the surplus grain needed for brewing.

Of course, that’s just a theory, without a whole lot of evidence to support it other than that from the time humans have been using a written language, they’ve been using it to talk about beer. Somehow, it had never occurred to me to think about beer as a cultural achievement. Whether the demand for beer contributed to the development of civilization or not, however, there’s no question that too much of it can lead to behavior that’s entirely uncivilized.

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