The Universality of Alcohol and What it Can Reveal

Alcohol production and consumption is present in almost every major culture in the world, with most societies cultivating their own unique alcoholic beverages. Alcohol can often reveal important information about the spiritual and social structure of an ancient society, as well as show how far the culture’s influence may have spread.

The oldest alcoholic beverage ever found was in Jiahu, a settlement in North-Eastern China dating back to around 7000 B.C. (McGovern 2019)  Archaeologists from The Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology have been excavating the site since the 1980s, and discovered- after performing chemical analysis of the residue on ceramic pots- trace amounts of a fermented beverage made from honey, rice, and fruit.  (McGovern 2019)

Image 1: Neolithic jars used to hold early alcoholic beverages, discovered at Jiahu. ca. 7000-6600 B.C. Photo: Z Juzhong, Z. Zhang, and Henan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Image 2: Modern day beverage produced to mimic the alcohol found at Jiahu Photo: Dogfish Brewery

The alcohol discovered at Jiahu does not neatly fit into any of our modern day classifications such as beer or cider, however, wine has been in production for around 7,000 years, with the earliest examples being traced back to 5,400 in present day northwestern Iran. (Malin 2014)  Ancient Egypt is known as one of the biggest producers of wine and beer in the ancient world, connecting the highest and lowest on the social pyramid in the shared enjoyment of drinking. Models of breweries, often put alongside bakeries, have given valuable insight into the scale of the brewing operations of the time, as well as indicating the influential role played by women handling alcohol production. (Mark 2017)

Image 3: Model Bakery and Brewery found in the tomb of Ancient Egyption chancellor Meketre. ca. 1981-1975 B.C. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There was a good deal of disagreement concerning alcohol consumption in Ancient Greece, with philosophers like Aristotle and Zeno critiquing drunkness, and members of the Dionysian cult arguing that “intoxication brought them closer to their deity.” (Hanson 1997) Discovery of the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens indicates the importance of drinking in Greek Culture, especially in relation to religion. Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and wine was the subject of many festivals in which revelers would consume vast amounts of wine in a sort of frenzy to celebrate the god. (Taylor 2019) Alcohol was often seen as a way to connect with the gods and show piety through intoxication. Scenes depicted on greek pottery found in Athens indicate that the vessel was intended to hold beer or wine, showing gods, mythological beings, and humans consuming alcohol together. 

Image 4: Greek vase made to hold wine at events, showing Dionysus with a band of fellow drinkers and a satyr leading the way. ca. 440 B.C.E. Photo: The Walters Art Museum

Alcohol consumption is one of the clearest connections found between early societies and our modern day way of life. The consumption of alcohol has manifested itself differently over the ages and across the globe, but has allowed us to track advancements in science, technology, and communication between groups.   Archaeological discoveries relating to fermentation show the nature of scientific exploration at times was religion was highly influential, and the ways in which mythology was tied to drinking. 


Hanson, David J. 

1997  Alcohol among the Greeks and Romans: They Enjoyed Drinking. Alcohol Problems and Solutions 


Malin, Joshua

2014  10 Famous Ancient Archaeological Wine Discoveries. Vinepair


Mark, Joshua J. 

2017  Beer in Ancient Egypt. Ancient History Encyclopedia 


McGovern, Patrick 

2019  The Earliest Alcoholic Beverage in the World. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology


Taylor, Brian D. 

2019  The Festival of Dionysus: The Origins of Ancient Greek Theater. Bright Hub Education 

Additional Reading 

For more on alcohol’s long-lasting impact on human societies:  

For more on the re-creation of ancient alcoholic drinks: 


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2 thoughts on “The Universality of Alcohol and What it Can Reveal

  1. What insights into the social structures of ancient societies can an archaeology of alcohol provide? What makes alcohol social? Other than providing information about potential spiritual and social structures of society, what else can these archaeological investigations tell us about early humans?

  2. Consumption of alcohol can often indicate the strictness of social stratification present in an ancient society, or lack thereof. In Ancient Rome for example, it is widely known that the culture had a distinct upper and lower class with a relatively large gap between the two, however, the drinking of alcohol was enjoyed by all. Whether wine or beer was primarily drunk can indicate to archaeologists the social standing of the subject in question, considering that wine was the primary drink of the elite. (Sheldon 2010) The refusal of the upper class to drink beer shows how wide the gap between the classes was and the awareness Roman’s had of their status. The numerous and diverse ways to make alcoholic beverages contribute to its popularity in history. The long process associated with it’s creation adds to the social aspect of its enjoyment as drinkers all wanted to share in the fruits of the labor needed, as well as the widespread acceptance in many ancient cultures that intoxication was something to be enjoyed.

    Sheldon, Natasha. “Roman Wine Drinking.” Ancient History and, 2010,

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