Grain surplus, beer, and social differentiation.


The situation changes around 4700 BC in Mesopotamia. Villages and their cultivated areas are agglomerated into urban centres established along the waterways. The controlled territories cover on average 100 km2 and include the upstream villages. These rudimentary regional organisations include hamlets, settlements, villages and first urban centres. They are based on economic cooperation and the emergence of a politico-religious hierarchy.

Urban entities such as Ur, Eridu and Uqair are characterised by their political stability, their irrigated agriculture generating important grain surpluses, an economic specialisation among the population, a regional and not only local political centralisation, and finally a more or less planned economic organisation (vast buildings associated with grain reserves, collective granaries and large storage jars, collective irrigation works).

The accumulation of prestige products is low (weapons, precious metals, rare materials, jewellery, etc.). The latter are usually a sign of social inequality based on the barter of rare products, war or strategies of expansion by force, those ordered by a minority for its own benefit.

How to interpret these data and understand the dynamics of recent (5300-4000) obeidian culture? How do we move from small, relatively autarkic agrarian communities to hierarchical regional societies? What role did the beer brewing play in this evolution?

The researchers propose two models for understanding the success of the first centres of expanded power, which will be called " chiefdoms " for the sake of convenience[1].



Beer and the first chiefdoms in the Middle East?


In the first model (Greniers primitifs ), the nascent political powers are based upon the mobilization of basic foodstuffs (cereals in present case), the key to the survival of individuals and social group. The group who monopolizes the grains can also take control of the whole community, through the human bellies. But it is not to plunder the community granaries. A mediation makes this grabbing socially acceptable. A dominant group accumulates grain by mobilizing the collective agricultural work (clearing, irrigation, cultivation, harvest, transport, storage). How? By distributing some large bulk of beer before, during, and after the farming collective works.

The control of the cultivation of cereals and grain involves an agrarian economy limiting the risks and costs associated with the transport and storage of grains. It is the organisation of small farming communities, very stable and living on territories covering their needs. The social power belongs to those who organize the economical production. The grain surpluses are converted into collective works (building of silos, communal houses, irrigation systems). This autarkic model cannot propagate on vast geographical areas without resorting to coercion and forced labor, without borrowing this latter logic to the second model.


In the second model, the creation and controlled distribution of prestige goods can bring new exchange values, heart and fuel of religious and military powers. Who accumulates jewelery, weapons, precious stones, timber and rare (locally) goods is able to mobilized a small but militarily powerful social group, which can weigh on larger entities and so extend its control to the entire community. In this model, the mediation is the commercial circuit of long-distance trade. The accumulation and distribution of wealth generate highly selective social differentiation. Unlike the first paradigm (accumulation of grains), it spreads to other communities on one agonistic manner, as soon as are exchanged, win or lose the prestige goods. A fraction of the population cooperates with the new dominant group and exerts in turn its power against its own community. This paradigm leads to political instability, harsh competition, violent conflicts and willingness to submit new human groups. This quick political spread remains its avantage over the first more stable model.


These two simplified models account for the evolution of Mesopotamian societies in the 5th and 4th millennia. In fact, both strategies are interwoven and complement each other. Prestige goods are bartered against grain stocks on which one group has control. As for the peaceful peasants, they use the service of weapons carriers to protect their valuable granaries. Of that need for collaboration, Mesopotamian peoples has kept the memory. A few millennia later, they will say that in their country " those who have sheep, those who have oxen, those who have money, those who got gems, they all shall squat the day long in front of the door of the man who has grains ". A realistic judgment written in the 3rd millenium.

We must add : if the man who got grains does not open its door, the one who has prestige goods or weapons will plunder his granaries and drink his beer ! That's what happened so many times when eastern tribes of armed nomadic herders have plundered the wealthy granaries of the Mesopotamian central plain.

A social organisation based on overproduction and the mobilization of surplus grains (first model) better identifies the logic of the Ubaid Culture, its rural communities originally egalitarian, but in the process of hierarchisation. These entities practice a grain farming stimulated by irrigation, develop the landscape to suit their needs. They are gathered around large communal houses sheltering a part if all of their grain stocks. Territorial control seems mostly motivated by their agricultural and pastoral needs. Politically stable, they show however some evidences of economic and social stratification[2]. Both architecture and funerary objects display signs of it. The link between large collective houses and grain originates from the time of Samarra : the sites of Umm Dabaghiyab, Yarim Tepe, Tell es-Sawwan and Tepe Gawra offer examples of grain storage structures enclosed in "religious" collective compounds[3].

In order to anticipate crop failure, Ubaidian farmers have three safeties :

  • increase their grain storage to cover the next year by increasing agricultural production (irrigation, cultivation of new land, know-how more effective) and maximizing their surplus grain.
  • convert their grains surpluses into living food stock, i.e. alive animals, a tactical choice involving a cooperation with groups of pastoralists.
  • barter a part of their grains for imperishable and movable goods easy to exchange when needed, because rare and much sought after (copper, precious stones, jewelery, decorated pottery, shells, dyed fabrics, rare wood, etc.).

Ubaidian societies have clearly favored the first solution. However, the maximization of surplus grain involves one organising authority, a social incentive to produce them and a social values system that leads inexorably toward the second more agonistic model after a few millenia.

After this long digression about granaries, power and social rules, the beer reappears. The grains conversion and the making of beverages have played an important role in the Ubaid cultural adventure, as already mentionned for the site of tepe Gawra.


Beer parties and patronage of beer brews in ancient Near-East.


Thanks to Asian, African and Amerindian ethnological parallels, we know that a minority can capture a great part of the agricultural production by mobilizing the collective work of the farmers or by controlling the means of production. This accumulation requires one political and religious framework. The interplay of extended kinship and lineage, the organization of production (irrigation, allocation or sharing of land, collective work, material and storage facilities, provision of agricultural tools and domesticated animals) are a few ways to legitimize the accumulation of "the grains-wealth" by a social group, a chief and his family, a clan, etc.[4]

How can this work?

In a subsistence economy dominated by farming or horticulture, the best "money" is the couple bread-beer baked and brewed ??with the surplus of starch. In exchange for jars of beer and piles of patties, a part of the village, of the group or the wider community agrees to spend days or even weeks of its collective work to cultivate for a dominant group or a leader. The harvest will be owned by the one who has sponsored this collective seasonal work. It is supported by the sponsor's own prestige and especially his promise to provide bread and beer at will.

How does he obtain this free labor ? With the surplus of grain of previous years. It is a kind of multi-year cycle. The man or woman who can devote his or her grain stocks into beer, can then get from others that they work on its behalf, in exchange for "free" provision of bread and beer.

The most deprived people become "clients" of dominant groups which sponsor the organization of agricultural collective labor and can, through their own extended family group, in a short time make large quantities of beer. To brew for a group of 50 to 100 adults who drink 3-5 liters each per day, the organizer family group must have enough grain, fuel (wood/dung), water, jars, experienced women-brewer to be able to provide continuously from 400 to 500 liters of beer every day during a week or more. This organization also requires a deliberate planning of the beer batchs that follow days after days.

This social strategy foreshadows the Mesopotamian system " work for food ration of bread + beer " which begins in the late 4th millennium BC, and strengthened throughout the whole third millennium for the political advantage of elites in large urban centers.

In the ancient Middle-East, the seizure by a minority group of the grain surplus has been socially accepted thanks to a religious tradition. How ? By the patronage of beer brewing offered during communal celebrations. The local deities which protect fertility and well-being of the community are honored with offerings of bread and beer. They are invited to banquets offered by humans: pure bread and flowing beer. The social group which can produce these offerings immediately withdraw prestige and power from them. Sponsoring the batches of special beers offered to the protective gods of the city is a service to the entire community. The religious scenes depicted on the Tell Brak stamps, celebrations of collectively shared success, involve beer offerings in special cups. Beer symbolises abundance : the city granaries are full. The late religious translation of this concept is the omnipresence of this fermented beverage in the rituals, offerings and meals to the gods in Mesopotamia as early as the end of the 4th millennium (beer for the Inanna cult in Uruk).

Did what worked among recent agrarian societies occur in the Middle East 6-7000 years ago? The ubaidian houses are very large, 200 m2 on average. They shelter extended families of about 20 people. Excavations of the Hamrin basin, along the Diyala, a tributary of the Tigris, have found several of these communities.

At Tell Madhhur, a large, exceptionally preserved house gives some clues dated around 4500 BC. It is a large central cruciform room, flanked by small specialised rooms (kitchen, storerooms). The fire responsible for its destruction left all the objects in their original place: millstones, grinders, stone hoes, jars, spindle whorls. Numerous containers are used for food, storage and above all beverages. The number and diversity of bowls, jars and pots exceeds the needs of the household. Was these specialised drinking vessels dedicated to celebrations? Was the house of Madhhur home to a chief who could mobilise an entire village through the redistribution of fermented beverages. This would explain the exceptional number of jars and cups for a family house, even enlarged to about twenty inhabitants[5]? These vast mansions, too often labelled "temple", force us to revise this notion, which is more appropriate for the sanctuaries of the 3rd millennium, completed and codified structures close to ancient temples.

Other clues come from some 200 graves identified at Eridu in Lower Mesopotamia. Each dead is buried with their jewelry, a jar, a cup and a plate placed at their feet. These markers of a belief in the afterlife take a food form. The residue impregnated in the clay of the cups and jars has not been analyzed. There is no way to verify whether they were filled with beer or not ? At the time of excavation of Eridu, archeology cared little of the content of the ceramics.

We poorly measure the degree of settlement of the expanded Ubaidian communities and the intensity of their exchanges. But the very dynamic Ubaidian Culture covers ultimately the Great Mesopotamia, vast territories stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Anatolian Marches. This vast unifying movement prepares the emergence around 4,000 BC of the Uruk culture, in which the centrality of the beer is obvious. Material evidences of its omnipresence accumulate (Godin Tepe). This Urukian heritage is based for the beer brewing on its long protohistory during the Ubaid period (3 thousand years in all) during which beer becomes one of the means and the preferred vehicle of social transformation in Middle East.

The Ubaidian culture bequeaths to that of Uruk the following principles :

  • The control of cereal stocks is a critical social and political issue within the first cities.
  • The duo bread-beer is the heart of intra-community exchanges : rations of bread and beer given to workers, brewing techniques based on beer-bread, offerings of beer-bread to gods, etc.
  • The compensation for labor or service is calculated according to a scale calculated with bread and beer. Principle of the counterpart in kind undoubtedly acquired by the Ubaid culture.
  • Ultimately, the value of bread and beer is reduced to the grain volume required for their manufacture. Measurement systems specific to cereal products are developed, regardless the solid or liquid nature of the end product. A loaf of bread or a bowl of beer is equivalent if the same volume of grain has been used. In contrast, the numeral systems to comput raw grains, oatmeal, malt, bappir (bread-ferment beer), and various kinds of beer are differentiated.
  • Gods, as men, rejoice with bread and beer (theme of banquet of Mesopotamian gods). The gods must be served each day by humans. This organization does not result from a coarse anthropomorphism (divine thirst and hunger seen as human), but from a sacred economy whose benefits spill over the ruling class.
  • He who can offer to the gods the bread and beer gains a great political prestige. Patronage of daily brews in sanctuaries and training of clergy devoted to these tasks. The temple is considered as the earthly dwelling of a god and organized as such, like a palace. The prince is the first servant of the tutelary deity of his city. In return, he acquires a political legitimacy which makes him the first among humans.
  • Agricultural rites are first focused on the offerings of bread and beer to the gods of soil and fertility. These rites are domestic but also sponsored by the central authority during large annual festivals, generating prestige and political power.


The great adventure of the beer and brewing in the ancient Near East continues in the heart of the early kingdoms.

Before considering the link between beer and early kingsdoms in the world, we give an overview of the social forces and other parameters that ensure the expansion of the beer brewing during its protohistory around the world.


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[1] A. Johnson, T.K. Earle, 1987 : The Evolution of Human Society: from Forager Group to Agrarian State, 208, 222.

[2] G. Stein 1994, Economy, Ritual and Power in 'Ubaid Mesopotamia' (ed.). Tout spécialement pp 41-43.

[3] J. Makkay 1983, The Origins of the "Temple Economy" as seen in the Light of Prehistoric Evidence, in Comptes Rendus des Rencontres Assyriologiques Internationales 29, pp 1-6.

[4] Examples of "Beer Party". In Botswana (M. Dietler, 2001 : Theorizing the Feast, Rituals of Consumption, Commensal Politics, and Power in African Context, in "Feast" M. Dietler and B. Hayden ed., 82-85). Among Iteso (I. Karp, 1987 : Beer Drinking and Social Experience in an African Society, in "Explorations in African Systems of Thought" I. Karp and C. S. Bird ed., 88-95). In West Africa (A. Huetz de Lemps, 2001 : Boissons et Civilisations en Afrique, 111-114). Among Amerindians from Guyana : cachiri (cassava/sweet potato beer) for forest clearing. In Asia : see Joffe 1998 (note infra)

[5] M. Roaf, 1991: Atlas de la Mésopotamie et du Proche-Orient Ancien, 54-56. id. 1989: Ubaid Social organization and social activities as seen from Tell Madhhur, 91-145.  A. Joffe, 1998 : Alcohol and Social Complexity in Ancient Western Asia, CA 39, 303, 316.

15/01/2012  Christian Berger