by Michael Sisson (reprinted with permission from the Spring 1986 AMA Newsletter)
Note: this is the first of what will be a series of articles on various aspects of the history of Mead.
Pick up any book or article on Mead and you will probably read some reference to history: the heroic banquets of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, the river of Mead flowing in the Celtic paradise, or the goat of Walhalla that gave Mead instead of milk. Mead advocates claim that their favorite refreshment is "Man's Oldest Drink" (the title of a chapter in Making Mead. by Brian Acton and Peter Duncan). Beer and wine are very old too, and they are produced and consumed in far greater quantities than Mead. Can we legitimately claim for Mead the distinction of being the oldest alcoholic drink?
Mead is indeed very old and its origins, like those of beer and wine, lie buried in prehistory. The very antiquity of these beverages is what makes assigning priority to one or the other so difficult.
Archaeology will make a solid starting place for our inquiry, although it will not take us very far. From the year 100 A.D. there is a drinking horn, found in Germany, which contained pollen grains from honey plants along with some yeast. A beaker found in Scotland and dated around 1000 B.C. also contained pollen grains, which means that it probably had held Mead too. More pollen of the same type was found spilled on the ground near the beaker, suggesting that perhaps the neolithic mead-tasting party got a little out of control. These material finds take us back some 3000 years but the record of ancient writings take us even further.
The oldest reference to Mead occurs in the Rig Veda, written in India in the third millennium B.C.. The god Vishnu had in his heaven a flowing spring of Mead, called madhu in the ancient Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, like most of the languages presently spoken in Europe (and the Americas), India, and western Asia, is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. The words for Mead in these languages are remarkably similar to each other: Sanskrit madhu, Irish miodh, Polish miod., German met, and our own English mead are just a few examples. The linguist D. E. LeSage believes that all these words came from one ancient root, medhu, in the original Indo-European language, a language which is thought to have been spoken around 5000-6000 B.C.. All this leads to the conclusion that Mead was known to people living in the Old World as long as 8000 years ago.
But what about beer and wine? Can either of them claim such great antiquity? In the case of wine, the answer is no. Archaeologists have unearthed large piles of grape seeds, telltale signs of early winemaking, which date from about 5000 years ago and the wine grape (Vitis vinifera) probably was the first brought under cultivation a mere 6000 years ago. Beer, however, goes back several thousand years more, to the dawn of agriculture. Farming began with the first domesticated plants, wheat and barley, and once relatively large quantities of grain could be harvested, the brewing of beer began. The invention of both beer and wine depended, then, on early developments in agriculture which made it possible to produce sufficient quantities of a suitable raw material (barley or grapes) for fermentation.
Before the invention of agriculture, people lived by hunting and gathering; and according to Dr. Roger A. Morse of Cornell University, "honey was the only concentrated sweet widely available in prehistoric times." The honeybee was already present in most of the habitable regions of the Old World long before barley and grapes began to spread slowly and laboriously from their native habitats in western Asia. The hunting of wild bee nests has been observed by anthropologists among primitive, pre-agricultural peoples in many parts of the world. In some places, humans may have discovered honey by watching bears or other animals raid the nests. In any case, as Dr. Eva Crane writes, "The primitive exploitation of honey developed independently, and in a fairly similar way, among peoples in many parts of the Old World." Primitive people today collect and use honey much as humans did for thousands of years before the beginning of farming.
Among the most primitive groups, such as the Paleolithic forest dwellers of Africa, the total contents of the nest are eaten on the spot, honey, wax, pollen, brood and all.Other cultures have learned to soak the combs in water to separate the honey from the wax. This was the technique the French anthropologist J.A. Vellard observed among the Guayaki Indians of Paraguay in the 1930s. The honey-water thus produced would make a fine sweet drink that would begin to change and acquire interesting new properties after a few days, if it were not consumed immediately, if the right wild yeasts were present, and if there were enough pollen or other substances in the must to provide the yeasts with the nutrients they required. Purists may scoff at calling such concoctions Mead, but primitive beer and wine could hardly have been much better. There must have been a great many failures; occasionally though the results were good enough to inspire the maker to try to repeat the success. By trial and error traditional methods began to develop, methods which were used everywhere until the last one hundred years or so and which continue to be used by many Mead makers in many parts of the world today.
"Long before the cultivation of fruit and grain crops," writes Dr. Morse, "fermented honey may well have provided man's first common alcoholic drink." The evidence supports his claim. Beer and wine, though of ancient origin, required the development of agriculture before they could become common drinks, but the raw materials for Mead making, honey and water (and a lot of luck) were available for thousands of years before the domestication of barley. Mead making, like bee hunting, probably originated in many different places, at many different times. Although in most places Mead was later superseded by beverages made from cheaper or more convenient sources of alcohol, it has retained a place of honor, an association with past golden ages and the deeds of ancestors and gods, because for so many of the peoples of Europe, Africa, and tropical America Mead was the first alcoholic drink.
Bibliography available upon request.
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