Brewing Before the Vassar Brewers

Booze and the ethanol within is something that humanity has embraced for millennia, and is still great choice for starting the weekend today. But when examining what ethanol provides the human body, evolving the ability to digest it seems a misstep – causing arrhythmias, cancers, and a weak immune system to name a few (Alcohol’s Effects, 2021). In short it seems that it was entirely random! One mutation millions of years ago led to the Viking’s mead and today’s Holiday Budweisers (Choi, 2014). This evolution has gained more logic in recent time, other theories built on the idea that small amounts of alcohol consumption had benefits (which is found not to be true), and so the consumption of rotten fruit laced with ethanol could provide utility for early humans (Choi, 2014). Where humans sourced their alcohol in the first place is another debate. One theory is that early man discovered alcohol along with agriculture. About 10,000 years ago, while humanity was domesticating grain some of it was used to ferment and brew beer (and some studies indicate it was brewed before it was made into bread!). This beer was likely long before any spirits waltzed their way onto the scene (those arose just 2,000 years ago) and their low percentage (and likely low resources) would have kept our ancestors drinking limited to a more moderate level, and important decisions were re-checked when sober (Kahn, 2013).

An early grain silo, where some of the first brews might have been born. Photograph by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques

The other leading theory is that our descent into alcohol degeneracy started with rotting fruit. This theory finds us all the way back 80 million years ago, when humans began walking on the ground and picking up rotten fruit (which our consumption of gives a key to when we began climbing out of the trees). This rotten fruit would not have been our first pick, but when we had to it’s calories brought alcohol along as a side effect. The alcohol content is low enough in rotten fruit that it only could’ve found a more prominent place once people started fermenting amidst agriculture, where higher ethanol content could be produced (Choi, 2014).

Butterflies getting drunk on rotten fruit as our ancestors did. Photograph by Phil Gates

But when examining other species, the hallmarks of alcohol that we might find off putting (the smell and taste of high ethanol content) to others is the smell of calories, and therefor survival. Treeshrews actively seek out high alcohol content fruit and nectar for its caloric content, with palm wine (from the tree’s nectar) enjoyed by our ancestors and still enjoyed today (Evans, 2016).

When examining our history with alcohol its easy to portray it as a plague that has followed us for millennia. But our ancestors habits gave us clues to how we ought to view our modern relationship with it: in good nature, in limited quantities, and a good bit of responsibility.


“Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021, “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021,

Choi, Charles Q. “Origins of Human Alcohol Consumption Revealed.” LiveScience, Purch, 1 Dec. 2014,

Evans, Robert. “Ancient Alcohol in the Animal Kingdom.” A (Brief) History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, A Plume Book, New York, NY, 2016.

Kahn, Jeffrey P. “How Beer Gave Us Civilization.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2013,

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Use of Human Bones in Toolmaking

While humans have a long history of tool-use, about 2.6 million years of it,1 the history of tools made from humans has a shorter timeline. Until the Upper Paleolithic (between 50,000 and 12,000 year ago), humanity hadn’t made the foray into the moral less-than-gray area of human tools. These first human tools were not forks or spoons, but use of teeth in jewelry, not finding a functional use till later on our timeline. Later, human bones were also used as retouchers, tools used to reshape and perfect other instruments. The marks left by tool retouching are distinct, meaning these bone fragments had a specific purpose-they weren’t scratched by happenstance. 2

An antler retouching tool

Later on, 11,000 years ago, human bones found usage in weaponry, near Britain. But while it might sound useful enough, human bone would’ve been a bit of an inconvenience for our ancestors. It’s rarer than materials from animals, and more brittle too, needing to be harvested shortly after death before it becomes far too brittle to be worked with. This suggests a different significance outside of killing deer, more towards a sentimental or spiritual one. With over 1,000 bone weapons found in the area these weapons were not something to be written off within this ancient culture.3 Along this vein, warriors in New Guinea chose human bone for some of their daggers. Because the daggers were made of human bone, they were said to retain the strength and power of its previous owner. This made them prized objects and significant to their possessors, and a more ceremonial object than functional.4

The cassowary-bone counterpart to the human-bone daggers of New Guinea

Human spatulas however, made their foray into the cutlery scene between 200 and 400 CE, far later than the earliest instances. These artifacts came from Teotihuacan, in modern-day Mexico, a culture which has a history of the use of human remains for alternate uses. The spatulas weren’t alone in their composition, other everyday objects were also constructed from human bone. While to us, their usage might seem foreign but within the culture (considering the 5,000 bone fragments found) it was not taboo.5

While the use of human bone for tools and utensils sounds absurd to us from a modern perspective, it’s an interesting view into how our ancestors viewed death and human remains. These more liberal uses of human remains are obscure and infrequent in our history but are still part of our evolutionary timeline.