History of Alcohol: A Timeline

How Long Have Humans Been Consuming Alcohol?

Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, ca. 25,000 Years Old
Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, Aquitaine Museum, Bordeaux, France. Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The history of alcohol and humans is at least 30,000 and arguably 100,000 years long. Alcohol, a flammable liquid produced by the natural fermentation of sugars, is currently the most widely used human psychoactive agent around the world today, ahead of nicotine, caffeine, and betel nut. It was made and consumed by prehistoric societies in six of the seven continents (not Antarctica), in a variety of forms based on a variety of natural sugars found in grains and fruits. 

Alcohol Timeline: Consumption

The earliest possible moment that humans consumed alcohol is conjecture. The creation of alcohol is a natural process, and scholars have noted that primates, insects, and birds partake in (accidentally) fermented berries and fruit. While there is no direct evidence that our ancient ancestors also drank fermented liquids, it is a possibility we should consider.

100,000 years ago (theoretically): At some point, Paleolithic humans or their ancestors recognized that leaving fruit in the bottom of a container for an extended period of time leads naturally to alcohol-infused juices.

30,000 BCE: Some scholars interpret the abstract parts of Upper Paleolithic cave art as the work of shamans, religious specialists who were attempting to connect with natural forces and supernatural beings. Shamans work under altered states of consciousness (ASC), which can be created by chanting or fasting or aided by pyschotropic drugs, like alcohol.' Some of the earliest cave paintings suggest activities of shamans; some scholars have suggested they reached ASC using alcohol.

Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, ca. 25,000 Years Old
Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, Aquitaine Museum, Bordeaux, France. Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

25,000 BCE: The Venus of Laussel, found in a French Upper Paleolithic cave, is a carved representation of a woman holding what looks like a cornucopia or a bison horn core. Some scholars have interpreted it as a drinking horn.

13,000 BCE: To intentionally make fermented beverages, one needs a container where they may be stored during the process, and the first pottery was invented in China at least 15,000 years ago.

10,000 BCE: Grape pips attest to possible wine consumption at Franchthi Cave in Greece.

9th millennium BCE: The earliest domesticated fruit was the fig tree,

8th millennium BCE: The domestication of rice and barley, crops used for the production of fermented alcohol, occurred about 10,000 years ago.

Production

Alcoholic substances have intoxicating, mind-altering properties that might have been restricted to elites and religious specialists, but they were also used in the maintenance of social cohesion in the context of feasting available to everyone in a community. Some herb-based beverages may have been used for medicinal purposes as well.

7000 BCE: The earliest evidence of wine production comes from jars at the Neolithic site of Jiahu in China, where residue analysis has identified a fermented concoction of rice, honey and fruit.

54005000 BCE: Based on the recovery of tartaric acid in ceramic vessels, people produced resinated wine, such as that on a fairly large scale at Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran.

44004000 BCE: Grape pips, empty grape skins, and two-handled cups at the Greek site of Dikili Tash are the earliest evidence for wine production in the Aegean Sea region.

4000 BCE: A platform for crushing grapes and a process to move crushed grapes to storage jars are evidence of wine production at the Armenian site of Areni-1.

Ubaid Pottery from Susa, Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres
Ubaid Pottery from Susa, Iran, 4th millennium BCE, Musée National de Céramique, Sêvres, France. Siren-Com

4th millennium BCE: By the beginning of the 4th millennium BCE, wine and beer were produced in many locations in Mesopotamia, Assyria and Anatolia (such as the Ubaid site of Tepe Gawra) and treated as a trade and elite luxury good. At the same time, Predynastic Egyptian tomb paintings and wine jars are evidence of the local production of herb-based beers.

34002500 BCE: The predynastic community of Hierankopolis in Egypt had a large number of barley- and wheat-based brewery installations.

Alcohol as a Trade Good

It is difficult to draw the line globally for the production of wine and beer explicitly for trade. It seems clear that alcohol was both an elite substance and one with ritual significance, and the liquids as well as the technology of making them was shared and traded across cultures fairly early on.

3150 BCE: One of the rooms of the tomb of Scorpion I, the earliest of the dynastic kings of Egypt, was stuffed with 700 jars believed to have been made and filled with wine in the Levant and shipped to the king for his consumption.

33001200 BCE: Wine consumption is in evidence, used in ritual and elite contexts in Early Bronze Age sites in Greece, including both Minoan and ​Mycenaean cultures.

Late Shange Dynasty Fu Yi Gong
Fu Yi Gong wine vessel from the Late Shang Dynasty (13th–11th century BCE) at the Shanghai Museum, China. Tim Graham / Getty Images

1600722 BCE: Cereal based alcohol are stored in sealed bronze vessels of Shang (ca. 1600-1046 BCE), and Western Zhou (ca. 1046-722 BCE) dynasties in China.

2000–1400 BCE: Textual evidence demonstrates that barley and rice beers, and others made from a variety of grasses, fruits and other substances, were produced in the Indian subcontinent at least as long ago as the Vedic period.

1700–1550 BC: Beer based on the locally domesticated sorghum grain is manufactured and becomes ritually important in the Kerma dynasty of the Kushite kingdom of present-day Sudan.

9th century BCE: Chicha beer, made from a combination of maize and fruit, is a significant part of feasting and status differentiation throughout South America. 

8th century BCE: In his classic tales "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," Homer prominently mentions the "wine of Pramnos."

"When [Circe] had got [the Argonauts] into her house, she set them upon benches and seats and mixed them a mess with cheese, honey, meal, and Pramnian wine, but she drugged it with wicked poisons to make them forget their homes, and when they had drunk she turned them into pigs by a stroke of her wand and shut them up in her pig-sties." Homer, The Odyssey, Book X

8th–5th centuries BCE: The Etruscans produce the first wines in Italy; according to Pliny the Elder, they practice wine blending and create a muscatel type beverage.

600 BCE: Marseilles is founded by the Greeks who brought wines and vines to the great port city in France. 

Iron and Gold Drinking Horn of the Celtic Chieftain at Hochdorf
Iron and Gold Drinking Horn of the Celtic Chieftain at Hochdorf, on display at Kunst der Kelten, Historisches Museum Bern. Rosemania

530–400 BCE: Grain beers and mead produced in central Europe, such as barley beer at Iron Age Hochdorf in what is today Germany.

500–400 BCE: Some scholars, such as F.R. Alchin, believe that the first distillation of alcohol might have occurred as early as this period in India and Pakistan.

425–400 BCE: Wine production at the Mediterranean port of Lattara in southern France marks the beginning of the wine industry in France.

4th century BCE: The Roman colony and competitor of Carthage in North Africa has an extensive trade network of wine (and other goods) all over the Mediterranean region, including a sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes. 

4th century BCE: According to Plato, strict laws in Carthage forbid the drinking of wine for magistrates, jury members, councilors, soldiers, and ships' pilots while on duty, and for slaves at any time. 

Widespread Commercial Production

The empires of Greece and Rome are largely responsible for the international commercialization of the trade in many different goods, and specifically in the production of alcoholic beverages.

1st–2nd centuries BCE: The Mediterranean wine trade explodes, bolstered by the Roman empire.

150 BCE–350 CE: Distillation of alcohol is a common practice in in northwest Pakistan. 

92 CE: Domitian forbids the planting of new vineyards in the provinces because the competition is killing the Italian market.

Roman Pavement Mosaic Depicting the God Bacchus
Roman pavement mosaic depicting the god Bacchus at the Genazzano Villa in Rome, Antonine dynasty, 138–193 CE.  Werner Forman / Archive/Heritage Images / Getty Images

2nd century CE: Romans begin cultivating grapes and producing wine in Mosel valley of Germany and France becomes a major wine-producing region.

4th century CE: The process of distillation is (possibly re-)developed in Egypt and Arabia.

150 BCE–650 CE: Pulque, made from fermented agave, is used as a dietary supplement at the Mexican capital city of Teotihuacan.

300–800 CE: At Classic period Maya feasts, participants consume balche (made from honey and bark) and chicha (maize-based beer). 

500–1000 CE: Chicha beer becomes a significant element of feasting for the Tiwanaku in South America, evidenced in part by the classic kero form of flared drinking goblet. 

13th century CE: Pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave, is part of the Aztec state in Mexico.

16th century CE: Production of wine in Europe moves from monasteries to merchants.

Selected Sources

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  • McGovern, Patrick E. "Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Beer, Wine and Other Alcoholic Beverages." Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Print.
  • McGovern, Patrick E., Stuart J. Fleming, and Solomon H. Katz, eds. "The Origins and Ancient History of Wine." Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2005. Print.
  • McGovern, Patrick E., et al. "Fermented Beverages of Pre- and Proto-Historic China." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101.51 (2004): 17593–98. Print.
  • Meussdoerffer, Franz G. A Comprehensive History of Beer Brewing. "Handbook of Brewing." Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, 2009. 1–42. Print.
  • Stika, Hans-Peter. Beer in Prehistoric Europe. "Liquid Bread: Beer and Brewing in Cross-Cultural Perspective." Eds. Schiefenhovel, Wulf and Helen Macbeth. Vol. 7. The Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. New York: Berghahn Books, 2011. 55–62. Print.
  • Surico, Giuseppe. "The Grapevine and Wine Production through the Ages." Phytopathologia Mediterranea 39.1 (2000): 3–10. Print.