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Razib Khan
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He liked a good brew!

Kevin Zelnio recently made me aware of this fascinating piece in The New York Times, For Its Latest Beer, a Craft Brewer Chooses an Unlikely Pairing: Archaeology. Here’s the catchiest aspect: a microbrewery is attempting to recreate the taste of ancient Sumerian beer! Why? Though it’s purportedly educational, obviously it’s also the “cool” factor which is at the root of this enterprise. The brewery doesn’t aim to sell this. I say why not!

A few years ago Paul Boom wrote the book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. This may seem like a trivial exploration of a topic, after all, who doesn’t know how pleasure works? But when you plumb the depths of genuine hedonism there are often rapid diminishing marginal returns when you simply apply a robotic calculus of more sensory vividness. Rather than a stronger chocolate, sometimes you want a finer chocolate. But what does that even mean? One thing that a standard hedonistic account of pleasure often underplays is that it is not a simple toting of sensory qualities. Rather, it is the essence of the thing that matters.

Lover of fine things!


An example will suffice to illustrate what I’m talking about. There is a bizarre story in the media right now about Vladimir Putin being involved in stealing a Patriots Super Bowl ring. I haven’t followed the story closely. But, I can tell you that the reason this is a story is not because of the physical value of the ring. It is because it is a Super Bowl ring. Rationally as human beings we understand that things are reducible to quarks and leptons, but hundreds of millions of years of evolution have hard-wired us with a sort of essentialism which tell us deep in our bones that there is a fundamental ineffable ontology to particular objects in the world. The nature of these objects is tied not just up in what they are in a proximate sense, but where they have been.

How does this apply to Sumerian beer? I believe one of the appeals of the Paleo diet is that it is purportedly the diet of our ancestors, and that has an innate appeal, because it feels deeply authentic.* This has pleasurable consequences. Similarly, the idea of drinking like the Sumerians has genuine value in and of itself in terms of hedonism, no matter the quality of the beer. Because of the downsides of modern processed foods one might argue that a fad for retro ancient food rooted in irrational instincts may actually be greatly beneficial to our society.

Delenda est processed food!

Of course the qualifier here is that we’d eat like a prosperous Roman, not the marginal peasant subsisting on gruel. But though there is an aspect of contemporary culinary arts which tend toward futuristic sophistication, such as molecular gastronomy, there is also a strain which leans upon simple and spare preparations. It may benefit American public health and our gustatory experience if an industry arose which marketed itself not as “health food,” but as “authentic food.” Eating a hearty Roman meal worthy of Cato the Elder, and wash it out with a beer which would have brought a smile to stern Hammarubi’s face! Silly, but sillier than a twinkie?

* I do not wish to get into discussing the Paleo diet, but I do think that empirically it is beneficial for many people because it gets them away from loading up on processed sugar rich foods.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Beer, Culture, Food, Sumerians 
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A few months ago someone asked me (via email) which populations I would love to get typed (genetically that is). There is one population which did not come to mind at the time: the Sumerians. Why? Because these are arguably the first historic nation. The first self-conscious ethnic group which operated by the rules which we define as the fundamentals of literate civilization. Strangely, they are an ethno-linguistic isolate. My own assumption until lately has been that this is not too surprising, in that prior to the rise of expansive civilizations (Sargon of Akkad) there was much more linguistic and ethnic diversity than we currently see around us. Or, was evident even in the early Iron Age. In other words, the ancient Fertile Crescent may have resembled the highlands of Papua, with Hurrians, Akkadians, Gutians, Elamites, Sumerians, etc., all speaking mutually unintelligible dialects which diverged very far back in the mists of antiquity.

I am no longer quite so sure about this model. That is largely due to the possibility that there was a great deal of demographic change between the Mesolithic and the Bronze Age, with successive waves of layering and replacement. My rough model is that a few groups of farmers may have expanded to swallow up thousands of hunter-gatherer groups. These homogeneous farmer societies eventually would diversify, because they were not united by the institutional forces which cemented later imperial regimes, in particular, literate elites which had a sense of consciousness which extended deep into the past because of written records. Therefore, the diversification would presumably have been similar to what we see with Romance languages, or Indo-Aryan, branching out from an common root language which replaced many competitors rapidly. Without writing and large scale polities the divergence would be more rapid, and there would be many more tips on the phylogenetic tree.

The Sumerians, and their neighbors the Elamites, as well as groups like the Hatti and Hurrians & Urartian, pose problems for this thesis. None of these groups seem to be Indo-European or Semitic, the two dominant language families of Near East by ~1,000 B.C. You have in the ancient Near East then a situation where the light of history reveals before us not the diversification of Indo-European and Semitic speaking farmers, but rather a host of unique and disparate peoples, all simultaneously lurching toward literate civilization, one after another.

Something just does not add up in my models. Genetics will not solve the puzzle, but it may help in elucidating relationships. The origins of the Sumerians are murky, but many scholars have suggested that they may have arrived from the south (the oldest city, Eridu, is in the south). Others have suggested that the Sumerians descended from the mountains of the northeast. Though I presume that the people Arabia have changed a great deal since antiquity, it would be interesting if it was found that the Sumerians resembled the Qatari (at least the Eurasian component) more than they did the modern Assyrians.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History, Science • Tags: Sumerians 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"