Does civilisation start with beer?

According to archaeologist Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Neolithic Revolution was driven not by the desire for bread, rice, millet or sorghum, but by the thirst for soul food in the form of beer. In other words, we turned from the harsh and uncertain life of the nomadic hunter-gatherer to a settled civilised urban life because of our ancestors’ simple urge for the ‘positive psychotropic effects, such as increased cheerfulness and confidence’, that come from consuming beer.

This conclusion arises from McGovern’s study of residues in Neolithic pottery, as a result of which he has concluded that alcohol production precedes bread-making and is likely to have played a pivotal role in the development of early society, perhaps by breaking down barriers between people and encouraging co-operative effort.

‘I think most people see this theory as a very plausible scenario,’ McGovern says, ‘even if we don’t have all the evidence, as most pottery found in the world only dates back as far as 7,000 BC.’ Still, McGovern’s research does suggest some fruitful new lines of enquiry to account for perennial archeologically mysteries: perhaps Stonehenge has nothing to do with ancestors, astronomy or healing, but was simply an idea conceived in a drunken haze and executed in a warm glow of egalitarianism.

Grumpiness is a sign of advanced civilisation

Probably not, as the usual consequence of too much alcohol is the desire to be left alone to die. Madcap projects conceived late at night tend to look different in the cold light of a new day, especially if they involve fetching a load of bluestones from Pembrokeshire and hauling them across Salisbury Plain.

But what do you know: another scientist has decided that being a bit cranky is another sign of civilisation. Comparing the characters and behaviours of aggressive, intolerant, selfish and unco-operative chimpanzees with the more easy-going, playful, bonobos, a Harvard team led by Victoria Wobber has concluded that grumpy chimps are far more intelligent than their very close relations, the sunny bonobos. The chimps solved problems faster (and to their own better advantage) than any of the bonobos, all of whom took longer to develop the same skill level as the youngest of the chimpanzees.

Wobber and her team have yet to explain the link between pessimism and intelligence, but they believe that it has something to do with getting the right balance between selfishness and co-operation (which takes us straight back to the reason why humans invented alcohol — it all fits).

Men are descended from farmers; women from hunter-gatherers

Farming certainly seems to have given men an advantage in the breeding stakes, according to another piece of research led by Mark Jobling, whose team of geneticists, based at Leicester University, have studied DNA samples from more than 2,500 men across Europe and concluded that the R1b1b2 type of Y chromosome is carried by 80 per cent of men, indicating descent from the first farmers to migrate across Europe from the Near East 10,000 years ago.

The surprise is that genetic tests on women show that most are descendants of hunter-gatherer females, which begs all sorts of questions about just what clicked between migrant farming males and indigenous hunter-gatherer females. ‘Perhaps back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer,’ said Patricia Balaresque, a co-author of the study.

Chris Tyler-Smith, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, another co-author, said that the European data was mirrored by results from similar studies in Asia. ‘All over the world, wherever geneticists look at farming expansions, the incoming farmers replace the indigenous men,’ he said, adding that: ‘Europe seemed to be the glorious exception, where the farmers instead taught their methods to the hunters and gatherers and then quietly passed away: true gentlemen. We have now discovered that this rosy view is not accurate. European farmers were just like the others, concentrating on transmitting their own genes’ (which sounds like a euphemism for using their technological advantage to impress the local girls).

Blue boxes and little pink houses

Now for a couple of heritage stories with a touch of colour. One concerns the Grade-II listed police box in Chepstow Road, in the Somerton area of south-east Newport. This is the sole survivor of four ‘Tardis’ style police boxes built in Newport in 1935. Before the advent of mass telephone ownership, these kiosks were the only way that members of the public could contact the police in an emergency. Police boxes went out of use in 1969, and the other three were demolished because they were suffering from a phenomenon known as ‘concrete cancer’, where the concrete slowly crumbles away. This police box is to enjoy a happier fate, as it will now be restored to its original condition and painted in its original blue, thanks to a £10,500 community grant from the Welsh Assembly Government. Deborah Clark, of the ‘Save the Newport Tardis’ community group said ‘Dr Who fans are ecstatic we have managed to save the Tardis from dematerialising for ever.’

Meanwhile, in the picturesque village of Acton Beauchamp, Herefordshire, James Rogers and his partner Alison Hall have sparked local fury by daring to paint their Grade-II listed cottage bright pink. The couple are accused of making their village look ‘tacky’ by using an ‘offensive’ colour. Every other historic cottage in this village of 216 residents is painted black and white. Local planning officials argued that the new colour affects the character of the building and therefore requires listed building consent. When the couple applied for consent retrospectively, permission was declined. ‘The planners and conservation officers felt that it was important to retain the character of the village and therefore ruled that the cottage should be repainted white,’ said a local authority spokesman.

Perhaps Mr Rogers and Ms Hall should consider a move to the other side of the country: in sunny Suffolk, houses are painted all colours of the rainbow — every colour, in fact, other than black and white.

Standing up against dumbing down

Academics tend to be an unhappy bunch these days. No longer do they just have to be good at teaching and research, they now have to earn their own keep and contribute to the fat-cat salaries and grandiose building schemes of the new breed of professional university managers. One way to do this is to take on more and more students, and to mark them positively, so that the university rides up the league tables. Many more first class degrees are being awarded now than in the past, even though standards are widely held to have fallen as a result of a decline in pupil/teacher ratios and face-to-face teaching.

Departments that cannot increase their income are closed down, no matter how highly they are held in international regard. This was the case with Southampton’s Textile Conservation Centre, and is the likely fate of the Departments of Palaeography and of Byzantine Studies at King’s College, London. One King’s College apparatchik described this as ‘strategic disinvestment’ aimed at creating ‘financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level with no realistic prospect of extra investment’.

Academics also complain of loss of tenure and the feeling that ‘I cannot now even read a book in the Library without being required to secure a grant to cover the cost’.

For all these reasons there is widespread, if muted, satisfaction in the recent victory of Professor Paul Buckland over his former employer, Bournemouth University, which must reinstate him or pay compensation for loss of income, having been found guilty of constructive dismissal. As Professor of Environmental Archaeology, Paul failed 18 out of the 60 second-year undergraduates who took examinations in 2006. He did not do so out of elitist disdain: one student attributed the decline of elm trees to diseases passed on by dogs; another said that the eruption of Pompeii in AD 79 ‘changed the pattern of human evolution’. When the university re-graded the papers without his knowledge, he felt he had to resign in protest against what he called ‘an unequivocal affront to my integrity’.

In the Court of Appeal in February 2010, Lord Justice Sedley ruled that the university had undermined Professor Buckland’s status and it was the ‘inexorable outcome’ that he had been constructively dismissed. The University has responded by saying that this is entirely a matter of employment law and nothing to do with what Paul Buckland has called a ‘much larger process of dumbing down’. Academics disagree: they see it as a small but important victory in the battle to stop what Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, calls the ‘marketisation’ of university education.

May 2010

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