Mapping the Historical Distribution of Alcohol Consumption Circa 1500

I am currently teaching a class for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program on the history and geography of natural psychoactive substances. Over the next nine weeks, I will be posting GeoCurrents articles derived from these lectures.

I have mapped the global distribution of each substance under consideration at the beginning of the early modern era (circa 1500). Creating these maps was tricky, and I cannot vouch for their accuracy. In many cases, the only information I was able to find was through ChatGPT. The responses that I received from the chatbot the were often too vague to be of much use. For example, when I asked, “Did the indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Archipelago have alcohol?” ChatGPT told me that “The indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Archipelago, located in the western Pacific Ocean, did not have traditional alcoholic beverages in the same way as some other cultures did. Alcohol consumption in these communities was not widespread before the arrival of European colonial powers.” I also know from experience that ChatGPT sometimes provides nonsensical answers, and a few of its responses to my alcohol-distribution questions are contradicted by other sources. As a result, these maps must be taken with a grain of salt. Note that I have put question marks in areas where the information that I found is conflicting.

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The first map in this series, posted above, shows the distribution of alcohol (ethanol) consumption circa 1500 CE. Alcohol was at the time the world’s most widely distributed psychoactive substance used for “recreational” purposes. It was known almost everywhere in Africa and Eurasia. Much of the Eurasian Arctic, however, was an exception owing largely to its lack of fermentable substances. Alcohol was not traditionally consumed over most of the Pacific. Some coastal populations in New Guinea made alcoholic beverages from abundant and easily fermented palm sap, but ethanol was apparently not known in the more densely populated central highlands. In Polynesia and most of Micronesia and Melanesia, alcohol was unknown, but kava (Piper methysticum) served a similar function in many areas.

Alcohol was widely used almost everywhere in South America and Mesoamerica. This “drinking zone” extended into some parts of what is now the southwestern United States, particularly among the so-called Pueblo Indians. Over the rest of North America, however, ethanol consumption was either unknown or very rare. There are reports that indigenous groups in what is now the southeastern United States sometimes made alcohol and some sources claim that Iroquoian peoples in the northeast fermented maple syrup. Overall, however, it is something of a mystery why alcohol was either unknown or little-used over most of North America.

Although alcohol was the most widely used psychoactive substance at the beginning of the early modern era, it was also subjected to the most widespread prohibitions, as the second map shows. In the Islamic world, alcohol was religiously prohibited, although some lax interpretations of the Quran held that only the consumption of wine was banned. And even though wine was forbidden in all interpretations of Islamic law, it was still widely consumed, especially in the Persian-speaking region. In the Hindu communities of India, traditional prohibitions of alcohol were largely based on caste membership. In general, high-caste Brahmins (“priests”) and Vaishyas (“merchants”) were not permitted to drink, although high-caste Kshatriyas (“warriors” and “rulers”) were. Low-ranking Dalits (“untouchables”) could drink. Customs varied among the middling Shudra groups, although the general rule was that a rejection of alcohol enhanced a group’s purity. Alcohol consumption was strongly discouraged by Theravada Buddhism, the dominant sect of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Ethanol was certainly consumed in these lands in the early modern period, but a degree of stigma surrounded its use.

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It is intriguing that the zone of widespread alcohol prohibition is essentially located in the center of the region of historical alcohol consumption. Although Egypt and Iraq today have very low drinking rates, in ancient times alcohol had important religious implications in both lands. In Sumer (southern Iraq), usually regarded as the world’s first civilization, beer was viewed as an essential attribute of civilization. In Gilgamesh, the world’s first epic, the wild man Enkidu was domesticated by, among other things, the consumption of beer.

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Sumerian beer was so thick and porridge-like that it had to be consumed through special straws that could filter out the solids, as is seen on many images from the era. Today, curious brewers are reproducing Sumerian beer and drinking it in the same manner.

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