Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, boasts a lasting legacy that relates to many of humanity’s ‘firsts’. One among them pertains to a 5,000-year old artifact originally salvaged from the city of Uruk (in modern-day Iraq). Inscribed with the pictorial language of cuneiform, this tablet dating from around 3300 BC, depicts a human head eating from a bowl and drinking from a conical vessel. The bowl represents ‘ration’, while the conical glass alludes to consumption of beer. And more than just this human visage, the tablet is also marked with scratches that basically record the quantity of beer assigned to each worker. Simply put, the ancient Mesopotamian artifact is the world’s oldest known payslip that rather hints at how the hierarchical system of workers and employers existed even five millenniums ago – and they were possibly connected by exchange of beer.
Interestingly during this phase of human history, economic reliance among a significant (and connected) populace was just starting to emerge, and it was based on a dual form of so-called ‘gift economy’ and debt. In fact, from the historical perspective, the concept of ‘real’ money possibly made its debut after 3000 BC, which is more than 300 years after this artifact was etched. So during the epoch of the inscribed tablet, the Mesopotamian people probably dealt in a system known as commodity money, which entails the use of exchanged objects that have value in themselves, like salt, gold, silver, tea and even alcohol – as opposed to dedicated coins or metal tokens.
In other words, given the absence of a full fledged currency system, the employers opted for ingenious methods of ‘paying’ their workers. And one of them was assigning the much-loved beverage of beer. As Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the British Civil Service, told BBC in 2010 –
What’s amazing for me is that this is a society [in Mesopotamia, circa 3300 BC] where the economy is in its first stages, there is no currency, no money. So how do they get around that? Well, the symbols tell us that they have used beer – beer glorious beer, I think that is absolutely tremendous; there is no liquidity crisis here, they are coming up with a different way of getting around the problem of the absence of a currency and at the same time sorting out how to have a functioning state. As this society develops you can see that this will become more and more important and the ability to keep track, to write things down, which is a crucial element of the modern state – that we know how much money we are spending and we know what we are getting for it – that is starting to emerge.
Now from the archaeological scope, this 5,000-year old tablet is just one among a whopping 130,000 written specimens from ancient Mesopotamia, stored inside the British Museum. And even beyond Mesopotamia, the concept (and system) of paying beer to workers was also prevalent in ancient Egypt, circa 25th century BC. For example, around a total of 4-5 liters of beer were assigned daily to the laborers working on the Great Pyramid. And intriguingly enough, other than just the allure of alcohol consumption, some ancient beer variants even had health benefits. One pertinent example would relate to the 2,000-year old Nubian special beer that was laced with tetracycline, an antibiotic. Lastly, it should also be noted that most ancient beer variants were more akin to a starchy gruel (or porridge) that was the basis for an alternate meal for workers, as opposed to just an inebriating drink.