We may owe our civilization to beer. The standard theory of the rise of civilization proposes that nomadic hunter-gatherers settled down to cultivate crops. Since about 1950, however, dissident scientists have argued that the large amount of work involved in early grain cultivation would not have been worth the small yield of food. These dissidents suggest that the motive for the cultivation of crops may have been the desire to brew beer.

This theory has gained support in recent years especially with respect to barley, which may have been domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago even though it requires a lot of work to cultivate and despite the availability of other food resources. Modern studies have also revealed that beer, due to the brewing process, has a higher nutritional value than the barley itself. Proponents of the beer theory of civilization speculate that beer may have been discovered when some courageous soul decided to taste some wild barley that had fermented naturally while in storage.

Certainly by the time of the world’s first civilization—Sumer, in the southern part of modern Iraq, in the late fourth millennium B.C.E.—beer had become an important product. The Sumerians took their beer seriously, so much so that it had its own patron goddess, Ninkasi (meaning, perhaps, “Lady who fills the mouth”).

One of our principal sources of knowledge about Sumerian beer is a recipe for beer embodied in a poem, “Hymn to Ninkasi,” preserved on several 18th-century B.C.E. Mesopotamian tablets. Although Miguel Civil first translated the poem into English in 1964, scholars lacked the knowledge to attempt to brew some beer based on the recipe. Enter Fritz Maytag, president and brewmaster of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, who became intrigued by the problem and offered his expert help to the scholars.

The result, called Ninkasi beer, premiered at the annual conference of the American Association of Micro-Brewers in 1989. After improving the process—for the recipe allows creative latitude—Maytag submitted the beer to its first public tasting on March 21, 1993, at the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The event attracted 1,000 beer lovers from the general public.

English beer expert Michael Jackson described Ninkasi beer as having “a distinct grainy character, a slight sherrylike taste and the flavor of honey and dates.” Nevertheless, it tasted “recognizably like a beer,” probably because of the use of commercial brewers’ yeast. With an alcohol content of 4 percent—below the modern 5 percent but above the 3 percent of so-called near-beer—perhaps we could call this a semi-near-beer.

And just how old is beer brewing? The world’s earliest chemical evidence for it has recently been discovered in a jug in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. The jug, dated to between 3500 and 3100 B.C.E., was excavated by Dr. Cuyler Young at Godin Tepe in western Iran in 1973.

University of Toronto graduate student Virginia R. Badler’s recollection of the Sumerian sign for beer—a pottery vessel with interior lines—spurred her to examine the deep grooves inside some pots. In the jug from Godin Tepe, she found beerstone (principally calcium oxalate), a sediment of barley beer that settles on the bottom and sides of storage vessels. The interior grooves apparently served to collect the residue and thereby prevent it from spoiling the brew. The University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania carried out the chemical analysis.

Ancient texts indicate that Sumerians of all social classes drank beer. Hammurabi’s famous code of laws even protected his people from price-gouging beer-parlor owners (women called “ale-wives”), who faced death by drowning if they overcharged customers. So “Joe Sumer” may well have settled down to a beer after a hard day building civilization.