Did the Builders of Gobekli Tepe Party?
Feasting is a ritual long shared among societies spanning the globe. Feasts are usually celebrated by close-knit members of a social group to mark important events and special occasions. This could be a new birth or a particular time of year, like a solstice or equinox. But feasts can also be used to strengthen ties between peoples separated by distance. In this way, communities come together to forge alliances, share ideas, smooth misunderstandings and revisit shared memories.
For most of today’s cultures, alcohol is a principal component of such feasts. We know this has been true dating back to civilizations as old as the Egyptians and Sumerians. But does the brewing and consumption of alcohol go back even further? Just when did our ancestors begin partying?
In a 2012 article by GT researchers, Oliver Dietrich, Manfred Heun, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt and Martin Zarnkow, tantalizing evidence is presented indicating that the builders of Gobekli Tepe (GT) might be the first known people with the knowledge to brew fermented drinks. Moreover, the pleasurably intoxicating effects of these drinks might have been the bonding agent that lured people from around the region to GT and encouraged them to contribute to the back-breaking construction efforts.
So what is the evidence?
First off, it’s long been thought that grain domestication began in the northern flanks of the Fertile Crescent, near the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The processing of tiny grains is hard work: harvesting, separating grain from chaff, pounding the grain into meal. All this for a little bit of extra food when there was so much else around to eat? Seems like a lot of work for little reward. But if you knew your labor would result in something a little more special, maybe it would be worth it.
GT scientists have discovered vessels and troughs bearing evidence for oxalate, which is produced during the steeping, mashing and fermentation of cereal grains. Pictures of these items can be viewed here (copyrighted material.) There are other possible explanations for the presence of oxalate, but the study’s authors believe beer brewing is the most likely candidate.
Whether or not alcohol was involved, researchers are convinced feasting brought large numbers of people to GT. This is evidenced by the large amount of animal bones they’ve found during excavation, particularly aurochs, the wild predecessors to domesticated cattle. These large gatherings would have stressed the area’s local resources, making it necessary to develop alternative food resources and possibly leading to the discovery of fermentation and/or domestication of barley, and wheat varieties like emmer and einkorn.
Much work needs to be done to verify these theories, but it is remarkable to think that beer may have played a role in the domestication of cereal grains and in the construction of Gobekli Tepe. To that we say, Cheers!