It is official: beer preceded bread in the development of human food. Using the same ingredients, and having the same nutritional value as bread, beer, it turns out, probably was the motivation for early grain farming, not bread as was previously assumed by archeologists.
And why not? It is obviously tasty and pleasant to drink. “Beer had all the same nutrients as bread, and it had one additional advantage,” says Solomon H. Katz, anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Namely, it gave early humans the same pleasant buzz it gives us." In fact, it is even more nutritious than bread, argues Patrick McGovern, the director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania (what a title!) "Beer," he says, contains “more B vitamins and [more of the] essential amino acid lysine,” Check out McGovern's book, Uncorking the Past: the Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. He points out it was also safer to drink than water, because the fermentation process killed pathogenic microorganisms. “With a four to five percent alcohol content, beer is a potent mind-altering and medicinal substance,” McGovern hypothesizes that ancient brewers acted as medicine men.
McGovern and colleagues found traces of sage and thyme in ancient Egyptian jars. Luteolin, which is in sage, and ursolic acid, which is in thyme, both have anti-cancer properties. Similarly, artemisinin and isoscopolein from wormwood fight cancer, and were found in ancient Chinese rice wine. “The ancient fermented beverages constituted the universal medicine of humankind before the advent of synthetic medicines.”
For more about the role beer played in "civilizing" man, read Gloria Dawson's excellent article, "Beer Domesticated Man." Subtitled, "Early man chose pints over pastry. Wouldn't you?"