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The 9,000-Year-Old History Of Booze, In Photos

Photographer Brian Finke traveled the world photographing alcohol’s ancient history–and humanity’s enduring love affair with it.

Nine thousand years ago, during the Neolithic period, the Chinese were making wine from rice, honey, and fruit. Wine made with grapes is thought to have originated 7,000 years ago, in the Caucasus Mountains–what is now modern-day Georgia and parts of Iran–where grapes were among the first fruits to be domesticated.

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As a recent article in National Geographic points out, while alcohol is typically thought to be a by-product of civilization, evidence that it has been around since prehistoric times suggests it’s much more central to our culture. In a photo series that accompanied the piece, New York-based photographer Brian Finke traveled to the places where alcohol was born thousands of years ago–capturing them through a contemporary lens.

[Photo: Brian Finke/National Geographic]
Over the course of four months, Finke traveled to rural Peru, the south of France, the Republic of Georgia, Germany, China, and parts of the United States. He photographed the process of making fermented wine in beeswax-lined clay jars called qvevri that Georgians have employed for millennia. In Jiahu, China–thought to be the origin point of the oldest form of wine–he captured workers steaming and fermenting freshly harvested rice. In Germany, he documented Munich’s Oktoberfest on the anniversary of the Beer Purity Law, passed in 1516, which had a major impact on the art of beer making by restricting brewers to water, hops, and malt. 

[Photo: Brian Finke/National Geographic]
As with any documentary photography project that explores parts of history, Finke had to capture the present in a way that sheds light on the past–sometimes many thousands of years into the past. Finke told me that he tried to look for artifacts or traditions that have managed to survive that huge swath of history, thus connecting alcohol consumption today with the alcohol consumption of our ancestors. “In certain areas, like Peru, China and the Republic of Georgia, the same process is still taking place,” he says. “[When choosing the shoot locations] we decided to go to the big, important ones and the ones that were possible to get to but would still show the massive scope of this history.” 

Doing so brought Finke and his assistant to Arles in France, where a Roman reenactment was taking place and archaeologists had recreated Roman wines using first-century AD recipes.  In photos that most strikingly show the correlation between historic times and present day, locals dressed as Roman slaves and soldiers pick grapes in homage to the Roman conquers who first brought wine to France.

Finke’s style of photography is decidedly contemporary–he describes it as using lighting and composition to “play with the feeling of whether something is real or created.” In Peru, where since the Inca people have since the 16th century imbibed to feel closer to the spiritual world, using his usual style of photography was especially challenging. “In Peru, it’s been heavily photographed by traditional photojournalism, but I wanted the photos to feel contemporary,” he says. As a result, Finke’s photo essay comes off as fresh–even considering the prehistoric subject matter. 

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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