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When and how was alcohol discovered?

Alcohol was likely first discovered in early human history during the hunter/gatherer days. It was first found in fruit and honey that had been left standing too long. Mead, made from honey, was most likely the first alcoholic drink. Beer did not develop until there was suffident grain that could be harvested with the rise of agriculture. Wine came about around 6,000 BC. More concentrated alcohol did not develop until the advent of distillation. Beer and mead remained the drink of peasants, as their primary nutritional and economic resource was grain, whereas wine required cultivation of grapes, a much more expensive and intensive process, taken over primarily by the Catholic Church, which had the money and resources to cultivate it. Thus, wine was the drink of the religious and the elite.

Fermented sources of alcohol remained the only sources of alcohol for 9,000 years, until the development of distillation by Arab alchemists (alcohol comes from the Arabic "al kohl," meaning any material's "basic essence"). Distillation works because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water and can be boiled off before water boils. It is recaptured in another container, providing a more concentrated mix of the substance. Distillation did not reach the West until the Middle Ages. Around this time, Europe was faced with the Black Death, and Europeans' survival led to a continent-wide problem, with alcohol as both an escape from misery and a celebration for those who survived. Consequently, there was a dramatic increase in alcohol use and a parallel increase in problems associated with its use. It was not until the 17th century with the advent of other beverages such as tea, coffee, and cocoa that led to a reduction in alcohol consumption. Even as late as the latter part of the 19th century, however, a safe supply of water was nonexistent, and thus, alcohol remained a safe form of fluid intake relative to water. It was the confluence of the germ theory leading to safe water production, religious revivalism, and the application of medical concepts to chronic alcohol dependence that ultimately led to the view of alcohol as being evil. The following question addresses these issues at greater length.

One of the most intriguing phenomena is the almost universal production and consumption of alcohol. What possible advantage would there be to humans to consume alcohol over humans who do not?

Drunken monkey hypothesis an evolutionary theory as to why having a taste for alcohol may convey some survival advantage by allowing animals to choose fruit that Is the ripest.

Why do humans use alcohol?

For anyone who has had a drink and enjoyed the experience, the question seems ridiculous. For anyone who has suffered the ill effects of alcohol either directly or through the sufferings of a loved one, the answer seems beyond comprehension. To bridge the extremes of use and abuse, there are three reasons why humans use alcohol. First, there may be an evolutionary reason that humans use alcohol. Second, there were health reasons for alcohol consumption, particularly in Western Europe. Finally, many people use alcohol to experience its psychotropic effects.

Evolution

Evolution attempts to explain how and why certain traits in human nature exist. One of the most intriguing phenomena is the almost universal production and consumption of alcohol. What possible advantage would there be to humans to consume alcohol over humans who do not? This question has resulted in the development of a hypothesis known as the "drunken monkey hypothesis" (Stephens & Dudley, 2004). It is based on a number of facts that when linked together suggest a possible explanation to support a survival advantage for the consumption of alcohol. The hypothesis begins with our ancestors, the primates. A large portion of a primate's diet consists of fruit. Where competition for fruit is great, the ability to locate ripe fruit quickly has a selective advantage. As fruit ripens, the yeasts on it convert the sugars to alcohol. The amount of alcohol on the fruit is related to how ripe the fruit is. Locating fruit by the smell of alcohol is the quickest method for locating ripe fruit. Therefore, having a keen sense of smell and taste for alcohol would aid in the acquisition of the fruit. Monkeys, as well as other fruit-eating animals, have the ability to identify ripe fruits based on the smell of alcohol dispersed by the fruit downwind. Although humankind gave up fruit as a major source of nutrition eons ago, humans share a substantial portion of their genetic ancestry with primates. The current problems with alcohol may be a modern fallout of an initially important survival advantage to having a taste for alcohol.

Although this remains a controversial hypothesis, it has its appeal. First, alcohol content has been measured in some fruits, and scientists have found that unripe fruit contains no alcohol, whereas overripe fruit contains about 4% alcohol. A monkey preferentially selects fruit with an alcohol content of about 1% at its peak of ripeness. Other species also seem to locate fruit based on alcohol content, including the fruit fly Drosophila, and a variety of birds, butterflies, and fruit bats.

 
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