The Surprising Ancient History of Drinking in Excess

By Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD | Published 6/24/2017 1

ancient history of drinking to excess

Photo credit: By Mbdortmund (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (httpss://], via Wikimedia Commons

Did you ever stop to think: How old is this wine? No, I don’t mean this bottle or even this medieval winery in Bordeaux? I mean, how long have people been imbibing? How did they stumble upon this wonderful drink?


The biochemical evidence

The “active ingredient” in wine (and beer, and hard liquor) is ethanol—yes, the same stuff that is supposed to power our cars in a few years. But think about it, ethanol is a foreign substance to our body. So, how come we have an enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) that is specifically designed to metabolize it? In fact, we are not unique in this respect—most organisms (even bacteria) contain a version of this enzyme.

The answer is that since very very ancient times, probably since complex aerobic organisms evolved and glucose became a source of energy (about a billion years ago), the sugar in dead organisms—both plants and animals—underwent fermentation to make ethanol. And since organisms feed upon each other, after the first exhilaration of getting drunk on the rotting food, cooler heads prevailed and realized that it was evolutionarily advantageous for them to be able to metabolize this elixir before it did them in.

So, humans were equipped to handle alcohol since they became a unique species (1 million years ago if you start counting from Homo erectus). But how much of a buzz could Uncle Erectus get from a rotting fruit? Probably not much; he would have had to ingest enormous quantities of the stuff. But Auntie Erecta, the fruit gatherer of the family, probably did ingest large amounts of the stuff, especially when times were hard and hubby failed to bring the bacon home.


The archeological evidence

Seriously, this is the most likely scenario. Women and children were tasked with gathering plants and fruits, while our macho forefathers were chasing animals, with very mixed results I might add. About 10,000 years ago, some very observant and patient gatherers, most likely women, decided that instead of running around for miles every day looking for edible wild plants, it would make a lot more sense to collect the seeds of those plants, plant them in small plots of land, and simply harvest the next generation. This was a momentous insight; that was the dawn of agriculture, and farmers, and villages, and the domestication of animals and plants, and yes, alcoholic drinks.

The earliest archeological evidence of wine production comes from Georgia—not in the U.S. but in the Caucasus. Ceramic jars containing residues of red wine and dating to about 8,000 years ago (6000 BC), were found in several archeological sites there. From there, the art of winemaking spread south to Bulgaria, Anatolia (in today’s Turkey), and Phoenicia or Canaan (today’s Syria, Lebanon, and Israel). It also spread west to Greece, Rome, and the Iberian Peninsula. In all of those places, there is solid physical evidence that red wine was produced and stored in large quantities. In fact, the ancients were quite sophisticated connoisseurs: Hieroglyphs in Egypt from the third dynasty period (about 3000 BC) document six varieties of wine and rate them according to quality.

There was a lively commerce in wine across the world of antiquity. The Phoenicians, a sea-going lot, brought wine to the archaic Greeks (the Minoans and Myceneans) about 1500 BC. In fact, the word “wine” probably originates from the ancient Semitic (Canaanite, Aramaic, Hebrew) word Yain (pronounced YA-in), which the Greeks called Oinos and the Romans later called Vinos.


Everything in moderation

The ancients recognized that wine was “good for you” in small quantities, but harmful in excess. In Greek mythology, only the Gods were allowed to drink to excess and get drunk. The variety of wine they drank was called Nektar (which etymologically is made up of two words: ‘away from’ or ‘escape from’ and ‘death’). It was supposed to confer long and happy life (and they didn’t even know about Resveratrol). Mortal Greeks had to drink their wine diluted with water. In the classical period (5th and 4th century BC), Greeks used to gather for philosophical and political discussions (those gatherings were called ‘symposia’), which ended with a meal and wine, the latter diluted one to four with water. Drinking undiluted wine was considered definitely decalassĂ©.

The ancient Egyptian religion was obsessed with death and invested red wine with a religious meaning. They considered it the blood of their ancestors, which would be OK to drink in small quantities in order to commune with their spirits, but larger quantities could incur their wrath and cause delirium and death. Stripped of the religious mumbo jumbo—quite accurate!

The Bible (6th century BC) has many allusions to wine. The idiom for peace and prosperity was “each under his vine and under his fig tree.” And King Solomon in his infinite wisdom pronounced that “wine gladdens a person’s, heart.” But there are also many warnings of excess. My favorite actually comes from the Talmud, a commentary on the Bible. There is a Talmudic parable which says that Satan came one day to drink with Noah and slew a lamb, a lion, a pig, and an ape (oy vey) to teach Noah that, before wine is in him, man is a lamb; when he drinks moderately, he is a lion; when like a sot (hence ‘besotten’), he is a swine; but after that, any further excess makes him an ape that senselessly chatters and jabbers.


Drinking to excess

Drinking to excess can have consequences that transcend the individual; in fact, it can have consequences of historical proportions. Take the Romans, for example. As they became powerful and imperialistic, they exacted heavy dues on their vassal states. One of those was poor little Portugal. In a valley east of Lisbon, the locals were raising grapes and making a sweet variety of wine. The wine was then exported to Rome through the port city of Oporto, but this imported port wine was expensive and only the aristocracy could afford to drink it. And drink they did!

There is some poetic justice in this iniquity. The amphoras (storage vessels) in which the wine was shipped were painted with lead-based paints, and the stuff leached into the wine. Bone biopsies taken from skeletons of these pillars of the community revealed toxic amounts of lead. Chronic lead toxicity can lead, among other bad things, to chronic fatigue, cognitive deficits, and neurological disorders. Is it possible that those humble Portuguese vintners brought about the decline and fall of Rome? Unlikely, but for sure, they drove the Romans out of their mind.

Well, enough with the chatter; off to dinner and a glass or two of red wine. That’s still a lion on the Talmudic scale.

Here is a link to other TDWI posts on substance abuse and addiction.

This post was originally published on July 26, 2007. It was reviewed and updated on 06/24/2017.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

Dov Michaeli, M.D., Ph.D. (now retired) was a professor and basic science researcher at the University of California San Francisco. In addition to his clinical and research responsibilities, he also taught biochemistry to first-year medical students for many years.

During this time he was also the Editor of Lange Medical Publications, a company that developed and produced medical texts that were widely used by health professionals around the world.

He loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate knowledge and complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us.

He eventually left academia to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early-stage biotech company that developed products to improve post-surgical pain control.

Now that he is retired, he enjoys working out for two hours every day. He also follows the stock market, travels the world, and, of course, writes for TDWI.