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Boozing helped us to build civilisation

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Why do we drink, asks Kate Julian in The Atlantic. One answer is “because it is fun”. But in a new book, Edward Slingerland argues that getting buzzed helped humans to build civilisation from the ground up.

Ten million years ago, a genetic mutation boosted our monkey ancestors’ alcohol metabolism. Fermenting fruit on the forest floor suddenly became a lot more appealing: animals that could handle their drink were rewarded with calories. “In the evolutionary hunger games, the drunk apes beat the sober ones.”

More answers lie under the enormous stone slabs of Gobekli Tepe, a ruined temple in Turkey that dates back to 10,000BC. No one lived or farmed there, but the remains of drinking vats suggest hunter-gatherers travelled miles to “get truly hammered”. “Periodic alcohol-fuelled feasts” were the glue that held this culture together.

Like many things that bring humans together – laughter, dancing, singing, storytelling, sex, religious rituals – drinking releases endorphins. And it’s a virtuous circle: alcohol also facilitates bonding. Obviously there are possible side effects, including rowdiness and ill health. But over the years alcohol’s dark side has been “outweighed by some serious advantages”. In the end, “the drunk tribes beat the sober ones”.

Listen to the podcast here.