“Drink,” the village shaman said before sipping from a dried coconut husk and dipping it back into a bowl of rice wine.
He handed me the husk, wine dripping off the bottom. Looking around at the deep green of the Banaue rice terraces surrounding us, then to the village chieftain nodding and grinning at me, I figured when in Rome, or more precisely, when in Ifugao, I might as well drink the rice wine.
This was part of a ceremony to welcome us – a film crew and I – to the Philippine village to shoot a travel programme.
Now, I’d always pictured a sacred tribal ceremony with chanting and dancing and throngs of people standing around in loin cloths, but this wasn’t like that.
It was three guys squatting under a hut while the shaman recited a prayer and told us to drink rice wine.
Mostly, we were just drinking rice wine.
“Every time I drink,” the shaman said, “You drink.”
And so I did. Until I was feeling pretty drunk and it was only noon.
It was surprising to me that this sacred tribal ceremony seemed to centre around drinking alcohol but maybe it shouldn’t have been.
Clearly, too much alcohol is a bad thing, but what would the adaptive benefits be, and where did our taste for alcohol come from? Drunken monkey hypothesis is one explanation.
Alcohol use is pretty much a constant in all human cultures since we were living in caves and draping ourselves in bear skins. In fact, there has been evidence to suggest that the development of agriculture was based as much on growing grain for beer as it was for bread. And development of agriculture is largely seen as what made modern civilisation possible.
Do we owe it all to love of beer?
The Social Issues Research Centre in Britain states “the persistence of alcohol use, on a near-universal scale, throughout human evolution, suggests drinking must have had some significant adaptive benefits, although this does not imply that the practice is invariably beneficial.”
Clearly, too much alcohol is a bad thing, but what would the adaptive benefits be, and where did our taste for alcohol come from?
Drunken monkey hypothesis is one explanation – and no, that isn’t the hypothesis that 1,000 drunk monkeys tapping away on keyboards will eventually work out the kinks and pen a better version of Dark Knight Rises than Christopher Nolan could manage.
No, Drunken Monkey Hypothesis states that fruit eating animals – including us back in the day – may have gained an evolutionary advantage by learning to associate the smell and taste of alcohol with ripe fruit as ripe fruit is heavy in ethanol.
The ability to sense ethanol – which is relatively light and borne on the breeze – is one of the cues insects and reptiles use to find food.
This would have helped our ancestors find ripe fruit in the dense jungle. Hence we are the Drunken Monkeys in that hypothesis.
However, the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis doesn’t sit well with everyone.
According to Katherine Milton, a primatologist at University of California, Berkeley, “The smell of ethanol is more likely to repulse fruit eating primates than attract them.”
Overripe fruit has a higher concentration of ethanol than ripe fruit, and when’s the last time you saw a bunch of bananas in the cupboard, waited for them to turn black and only then decided to chow down on them?
Milton may have a point.
But what drives our taste for alcohol, a desire that has made these beverages a defining part of our social events and social status not just in the present but throughout our past?
“Humans love any mind-altering substance,” Milton said.
Humans are cultural animals and have been fermenting alcohol for thousands of years and “generation after generation has learned to like it”.
Recently, scientists have observed chimps in Guinea soaking up palm wine with leaves and squeezing it into their mouths.
Locals leave plastic containers in the trees to collect sap which quickly ferments and turns into wine, and chimps dip leaves into the containers to drink up the wine.
The wine has between 3.1% and 6.9% alcohol, and the chimps were said to consume on average a litre, and most of them were male.
The chimps appeared drunk, and there is no nutritional value to consuming so much wine, so maybe the chimps, like humans, just enjoyed the feeling?
Maybe for humans, alcohol has been a tool to break tension and create stronger bonds.
We’ve been congregating over drinks for as long as we’ve been here, and sipping rice wine with a tribe in Ifugao definitely had me bonding with the shaman and chieftain.
After a while, we were smiling and hanging out though we didn’t speak a common language, and then the chieftain made me an honorary member of the tribe.
But Ifugao also demonstrated something else, the scarcity of alcohol.
They make all their own wine, fermenting it for weeks or months.
In those conditions, the wine is saved for special occasions and celebrations.
It has to be, as they can’t make enough to sustain binge drinking, which is good because you can always have too much of a good thing.
Catch Jason Godfrey on The Link on Life Inspired (Astro B.yond Ch 728).
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