I usually receive one of three reactions from people when I tell them I study anthropology. The first is confusion, because depending on their experiences some people have not heard of anthropology or are unaware that the study of humans, their skeletons, genetics, culture, material remains, language etc. is called anthropology. The second group of people have heard of anthropology and are either neutral or excited about the discipline. The third group of people are those that get the most excited. “Oh!”, they exclaim, “What’s the latest dinosaur you’ve found!!!” This is the group of people that is the most disappointed when they learn I cannot in fact tell them about the latest in Jurassic predators and the one I get to educate about the difference between paleontology and anthropology.
At this point it’s a standing joke in my field, the mix up between paleontology and anthropology. It is true that some branches of anthropology, specifically prehistoric archaeology and paleoanthropology (human evolution), devote their study to a timescale farther back than most of us consider. We became anatomically modern as Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, and our ancestors and the chimp lineage diverged about 5-7 million years ago, but the velociraptor stalked its prey about 75 million years ago. So as an anthropologist, I grapple with a much shorter time frame than a paleontologist. Where then does the confusion originate? Sure both disciplines study remains of the past but I blame Ross Geller. Yes, you heard me – Dr. Ross Geller, from the television show Friends. He was a paleontologist, but in many episodes he makes references/science jokes about subjects that actually fall under the umbrella of anthropology. There are in fact numerous articles detailing the questionable knowledge of Professor Geller as a paleontologist. In this article I am going to dissect some of Ross’s scientific references on the show for their place within academia (paleontology vs anthropology) as well as their accuracy.
My first field school was a project investigating Medieval population demographics through the analysis of funerary excavations at various cemeteries in Romania, specifically in Transylvania. Before and after I went on this trip I got varying reactions from friends and family members. Someone even laughed at my destination, not realizing that Transylvania actually exists as a cultural/geographic region and not just as the mythological birthplace of Dracula. One of the most popular questions I received was “Oh, going to dig up some vampires, are you?” And while those who asked were obviously inquiring in jest the answer is not actually a resounding “no, of course not” that you might expect. While there are no un-dead among us, sucking blood and avoiding the garlic fries on the menu at your favorite restaurant, anthropology teaches us that many legends are based in fact. And the fact of the matter is, there was a time when people believed that their towns were being terrorized by vampires, and that fact may be translated into certain burial practices for the “monster” in question.
Within the last few years, my hometown has seen a fortunate increase in both microbreweries and local distilleries. At one of my new favorite places to purchase craft beers I came across a beer that inspired this blog post. The Scottish brewed Fraoch Heather Ale boasts right on the bottle that the recipe originated in Scotland, 4000 years ago. “Leann Fraoch”, Gaelic for heather ale, is a light amber ale made from malted wheat, barley and hops (the usual suspects for beer) with bog myrtle (an herb native to Scotland) and heather, the purple shrub so indicative of the British Isles. While the heather ale brewed in Scotland today by Williams Bros Brewing Company is no doubt a reconstruction (using modern ingredients for a modern palette with modern fermentation processes), there is in fact evidence of a fermented drink containing heather dating back to 2ooo B.C. in Scotland. Analysis of Neolithic pot sherds from the Isle of Rhum revealed the residue of mashed cereal straw, cereal-type pollen, meadowsweet, heather, and royal fern that researchers have interpreted as an ancient brew of Northern Europe (Gregory et al. 2005; Nelson, 2005).
This investigation into the Neolithic origins of modern Scottish beer sparked other questions for me concerning drinking in the past. When in the past did we begin exploiting the process of fermentation? What lines of evidence contribute to our understanding of past fermentation practices and the recreation of these recipes? And finally, is it possible to identify an alcoholic from skeletal remains of such an individual? Throughout this post, I will explore these questions as I delve into the archaeological, historical, and biochemical literature concerning fermentation.