John Barley-Corn

As every homebrewer the world over knows, beer is the foundation of the civilization that arose in the Middle-East toward the end of the neolithic period. The demand for large, steady supplies of grain for a purpose that could not be denied led to domestication and farming of several local wild grasses, this in turn causing the sedentarization of nomadic populations, with the well known results: accountants and tax collectors.

Now come the news from Current Anthropology, 44:675-703 (2003) (as reported in the February issue of Natural History), that the same phenomenon may well have occurred in Central America as well: some 7000 years ago, local populations were cultivating Zea mexicana, or teosinte, the ancestor of Zea mais, a.k.a. corn or maize. The only problem is that teosinte produces only a few, hard, essentially inedible kernels, nothing that would justify the invention of agriculture.

However, teosinte –like maize– is a grass, and therefore a relative of Saccharum officinarum, the sugar cane, and like it, its stalks contain a large amount of sugary juice that would easily ferment in contact with the ubiquitous wild yeasts that zero in on any available source of sugar.

So there we have it, beer in Mesopotamia, tropical drinks in the Yucatan. But where did the little umbrellas come from?

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