Higher primates, such as chimpanzees, will eat rotting fruit to enjoy the "high" from their fermenting juices. It's therefore pretty safe to assume early Man did, too. The process of sugars fermenting into alcohol occurs regularly in nature through contact with airborne yeasts. But alcohol use would not have begun in earnest until the dawn of agriculture. Most sugars are simply not abundant enough in nature to make serious production worthwhile, so we probably began farming before we began brewing.

The first brew was probably date palm wine, originating in Mesopotamia. We know that the ancient Egyptians were drinkers, because they invented the first straws, for drinking beer that still contained wheat-husks. Some of their texts refer to the social problems associated with drunkenness, so they were no strangers to recreational drinking. The Babylonians, in the world's first legal text, incuded a law regulating drinking houses.

The Romans had a god Dionysus, or Bacchus, the god of wine, who they worshipped in bouts of alcoholic frenzy. Greek literature is full of warnings against intemperance - they were well-acquainted with the health and social implications of excessive drinking. There are many Old Testament references, and it was an important part of early Jewish rituals. Because of its ceremonial importance, overindulgence was frowned upon, and therefore, in a culture of regular drinkers, it was under strict social control.

The prophet Mohammed banned it, to distinguish his followers from the Christians and the Jews, and alcohol remains prohibited by Muslim nations. Buddhists also abstain, as do Hindu Brahmins. But in many other ancient creeds, a tipple was the principal means by which worshippers achieved religious ecstasy.

Alcohol's importance was never confined to the mystical, however. Throughout its history, it has been used socially for many diverse purposes, such as calming feuds, giving courage in battle, sealing pacts, celebrating festivals, and seducing lovers. In medieval Europe, its more practical roles were as a folk medicine and preservative: what better way to ensure liquids remained safe to drink than turning them into beer?

Its place in modern culture remains as a universal leveller and stress-release. "Going for a drink" is a bonding ritual, accessable to almost all walks of life, that allows meetings between people across large cultural divides. In the highly developed society in which we live, where else do the inequalities and tensions of our lifestyle find legitimate relief? Alcohol, in moderation, is a perfectly safe and very useful social lubricant. But as everyone knows, its misuse results in harm to the individual or group using it, and often to the broader society.

The abuse of alcohol and its associated problems is nothing new. As we have seen, ancient cultures were aware of its damaging potential. But, with the exception of the Muslim countries, where the religious prerogative provides the incentive, most efforts at prohibition have ended in repeal within a few years. The enormous popularity of drinking in Britain and Europe means that the idea of banning it has never won much support. Some Scandanavian countries have experimented with rationing, in an attempt to curtail alcoholism, with little success.

In Britain in the 1830's, alcoholism was rife, due (in part at least) to the harsh social conditions brought about by the nation's rapid industrialization. Many families were suffering as a result. The temperance movement that grew out of the backlash caused thousands to "take the pledge", although an all-out ban was never considered as a solution. Later, during the First World War, Prime Minister David Lloyd George was tempted to ban it, but was persuaded not to because of the threat of social unrest at such a critical time. However, measures such as reduced strength beer, and the prohibition of "treating", (buying rounds) were introduced, and by the end of the War, alcohol consumption had dropped considerably.

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