Why does Alcohol exist?
Commonly, alcohol refers to the specific member of the family of chemical compounds known as alcohols, also known as Ethyl Alcohol or ethanol. Ethanol is most well-known for its consumption by humans in the form of beers, wines and spirits. Ethanol is also used as a fuel, solvent and anti-septic. It can be created by man by fermenting sugars with yeast or through the hydration of ethylene. It also occurs naturally as a byproduct of the metabolic process of yeast.
Alcohol in human culture
How did man’s relationship with alcohol start? It is mentioned earlier in this article that ethanol can occur naturally in overripe fruit, and certain animals can display ethanol seeking behaviors. Most animals, however, can’t metabolize alcohol very well, but humans and many different primate species can. Overripe fruit wouldn’t normally contain enough ethanol to cause drunkenness but it is possible that over the centuries, in prehistoric times, our ancestors learned to associate a pleasurable sensation with eating certain overripe fruits.
The next step in our discovery of alcohol happened with humanities shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle based around growing our own food and living in large agricultural settlements. It is widely believed by historians and archaeologists that we discovered brewing beer around the same time as we discovered grains, cereals and bread making. In fact, some prehistoric societies may have settled down for the express purpose of making beer as a way to harness the calories present in grains. Many types of grain found in the archaeological sites of ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians and the Indus Valley, such as Barley, were less than ideal for turning into bread because of the time consuming and difficult process of husking and grinding. Beer on the other hand was less labor intensive than flour, rich in calories and a safe source of hydration.
At the Wadi Kubbaniya archaeological site, residues of flour and plant mixtures suggest that brewing might have been taking place as long ago as 18000 years ago. For comparison, archaeologists estimate that humanity first started settling down, building permanent shelters and living in settlements built around crops and agriculture 12000 years ago. Our relationship with alcohol is so old, we may have been brewing beer and getting tipsy intoxicated 6000 years before the first house was built or the first crop of grain was grown.
As ethanol is made as a byproduct of fermentation with yeast, it is present in any yeast habitat. Ethanol can be found in overripe fruits (some animal species also exhibit ethanol seeking behaviors such as the pentailed treeshrew). Ethanol can also occur during the germination of many plants as a consequence of natural anerobiosis. Ethanol has also been found to occur in outer space, in icy coatings around dust grains in interstellar clouds.
Auto brewery syndrome, also known as gut fermentation syndrome, is a rare medical condition in which intoxicating quantities of ethanol are produced through endogenous fermentation in the digestive system.
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