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Sometimes it seems like we live in an era of unprecedented excess. Modern science and the cushiness of western life have brought us a world where more people spend more of their time expanding the frontiers of hedonism than ever before.
But while it’s fine to be proud of our vaporizers, alcoholic root beer and sweet, sweet MDMA, we’d do well to remember that human beings have been partying for tens of thousands of years. And many of our modern achievements in excess are much older than you’d guess.
1. Booze Through A Boot
Guzzling beer from a boot is a time-honored tradition from at least as far back as anyone reading this will remember. It’s probably not surprising that drinking beer out of a boot is a German tradition that goes back a century or more. Various stories credit it to a Prussian General promising to drink out of his boot if his troops won a battle, or desperate soldiers in the trenches of World War One who had no access to glasses.
But the beer boot’s real origins go back even further than the idea of Germany. Seven hundred years ago, in what’s now Peru, the Wari Empire ruled o’er the land and cemented their control by brewing the best damned beer in the Americas. Like other Mesoamerican peoples, including the Inca, the Wari used their ancestral brand of “chicha” as a way to pay government workers and throw giant, lavish parties to impress and cow their rivals. The basic idea was, “Look at how sweet of a party we’re able to throw. If you start shit, we’ll channel all this effort and wealth to fuck up your day.”
The Wari’s holiest festivals were also gigantic, drunken parties, where guests would often consume as many of three gallons beer in a night, via enormous half-gallon steins called keros. And as it happened, many keros looked like this:
And yeah, those aren’t exactly boots, but the basic idea is the same. The Wari commitment to innovative partying went beyond laying the foundation for a mildly entertaining drinking movie. Archaeologists don’t know exactly why the Wari died out. But the evidence suggests that before it happened the Wari constructed an enormous brewery, got wasted, and then burned their capitol down in history’s best equivalent of a mic drop.
All of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) culture is aggressively modern. Everything from the drugs to the heavily produced tunes, to having the free time to spend days zoned out in a musical trance would be impossible outside of this cushy modern world.
But our stone-age ancestors in at least one part of the world enjoyed something very similar, if Dr. Bruno Fazenda is correct. He was part of a team with the Universities of Salford, Bristol, and Huddersfield, who first tested the theory that Stonehenge might have been built as a gigantic Stone Aged amplifier. Acoustic tests have confirmed that the rocks of Stonehenge have a similar effect on sound as a large lecture hall. The stones appear to have been selected and shaped, to enhance this effect.
Dr. Fazenda and his team weren’t allowed to use their electronic testing equipment at the actual Stonehenge, but it just so happens that America’s first World War One monument is a scale reconstruction of the ‘henge in Maryhill, Washington. The creator, Sam Hill, believed Stonehenge had been a site for human sacrifice. He was wrong, but his Stonehenge was so close to the original, intact ‘henge that Dr. Fazenda and his team believe any differences in performance between the two would be minimal.
Weirdly enough, the only flaw in the original study is that the music they used to test it was this haunting acapella melody, while the actual music being played at Stonehenge would’ve been more like a cross between samba music and a rave. Dr. Rupert Till, a musical archaeologist, believes the musical stylings of Stonehenge’s original occupants would have been fast-paced, percussion-heavy party music. He actually made the comparison to a rave, so this isn’t just me trying to justify my Molly habit via trivia.
“Similar activities are present at ‘rave’ events within Electronic Dance Music Culture . . . which has been described by many commentators as having ritualistic or religious meaning for its participants.” (Song of Stones, 2010)
Since I happened to have access to a samba band of my own (SambAmore of Arcata, California) I decided to re-create Dr. Fazenda’s Stonehenge experiment with something a little closer to the music of the ancients.
The short story is…it worked, surprisingly well. When the drummers kept up a steady 160 beats per minute, the resonant frequency of the replica Stonehenge, the whole structure started to hum like the rim of a giant glass. Everyone noticed it, and immediately started experimenting with how and where to position themselves for the maximum effect. Before long we were using Stonehenge itself as a gigantic instrument, powered by other instruments.
It was pretty sweet. And about a thousand times more satisfying than…
3. Getting High Through A Face Mask
The gas mask is pretty modern by human getting-high standards. But the basic idea behind it, that filling every sinus with smoke is way more fun than smoking via a pipe or cigarette, is an enduring one. The ancient Natives of Hispaniola (an island near Cuba) smoked through a y-shaped pipe very much like a nasal canula.
One of the earliest European descriptions of tobacco use involved this nightmarish thing. Here’s Governor Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, writing in 1535:
“Their chiefs employ a tube shaped like a Y, filled with the lighted weed, inserting the forked extremities into their nostrils. . . . In this way they imbibe the smoke until they become unconscious and lie sprawling on the ground like men in a drunken slumber.”
Now there are a couple of reasons why this old-timey tobacco made grown men pass-out, rather than invent the advertising industry. The first is that nose pipes just hit a lot harder and faster than puffing on a dinky old cigarette. The second is that the natives of the “New World” smoked Nicotiana rustica, not the tame Nicotiana tabacum in your American Spirits. Nicotiana rustica can be up to 9% nicotine: Nicotiana tabacum tops out at around 3%.
And boy do you feel the difference. I’m not a regular smoker, but I do smoke often enough to know that a single cigarette should not fuck me up. But by the half-way point of my nose cigarette I was officially too stoned to drive, even by Los Angeles standards. By the time I finished it I was so light-headed and woozy I had to grip the wall behind me for stability.
It was not a fun high. My sinuses felt like they were filled with ground up fiberglass and rocks, and my nose spent the rest of the night pumping out what seemed like an entire winter’s supply of snot. Here’s a tip, parents: if your kids are interested in smoking, just let them try a nose pipe of Nicotiana rustica. They won’t come back for seconds.
4. Caffeine / Liquor Combinations Were Invented By Monks
A few years back everyone got their underpants in a tizzy over Four Loko, a beverage that was both like, 10% alcohol by volume and also had several energy drinks worth of caffeine per bottle. Obviously this is super bad for your health and leads to shitloads of freaking out, super alert hammered people. Once it started killing people, Four Loko’s makers removed the caffeine in a bid to save face/lives.
The whole sad saga of Four Loko seems like a perfect example of modern technology and debauchery ruining two perfectly good drugs. It’s the kind of invention that could only come from a soulless corporation cashing in on the natural human desire to be both awake, and drunk.
Or monks. Apparently it’s also the kind of idea monks have.
Meet Buckfast. It’s a “tonic wine” that’s been brewed by monks in the United Kingdom since the 1890s. I’d never encountered a tonic wine before I met Buckfast, but based on that encounter I can tell you it means, “Terrible wine that tastes like cough syrup, has as much liquor as schnapps and as much caffeine as a jug of espresso.”
And no, the fact that Buckfast was created by holy men as a medicinal drink doesn’t mean its drinkers are any more responsible than the poor dead bastards who made Four Loko infamous. From 2006 to 2009, Buckfast showed up in Scottish crime reports at least five thousand times, including one-hundred-and-fourteen cases where the bottle was used as weapon.
So uh, thanks for that one, monks..