There are certain constants in the universe. Extremely massive bodies will have gravitational pull, for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction, and people will work for beer. A 5,000-year-old table was discovered and translated. What did this ancient tablet have to tell us? That people worked for beer. The tablet, as with many tablets in Mesopotamia, was a receipt:
Writing in New Scientist, Alison George explains what’s written on the 5,000-year-old tablet: “We can see a human head eating from a bowl, meaning ‘ration,’ and a conical vessel, meaning ‘beer.’ Scattered around are scratches recording the amount of beer for a particular worker.” Beer wages were by no means limited to Mesopotamia. In ancient Egypt, there are records of people receiving beer for their work—roughly 4 to 5 liters per day for people building the pyramids. And in the Middle Ages, we have several records of the great fourteenth century poet Geoffrey Chaucer being paid in wine. Richard II generously gave Chaucer an annual salary that included a “tonel” of wine per year, which was roughly 252 gallons.
Today you can buy the assistance of friends to help fix your vehicle, move your stuff, or perform other forms of manual labor using this ancient tradition of paying in beer.
One of my interests as of late is the history of human languages. Cuneiform, the writing used for the beer receipt, was the first writing system we’re aware of. Interestingly enough it, like most things, was a product of the market:
The Sumerians first invented writing as a means of long-distance communication which was necessitated by trade. With the rise of the cities in Mesopotamia, and the need for resources which were lacking in the region, long-distance trade developed and, with it, the need to be able to communicate across the expanses between cities or regions.
Trade is the mother of invention. Remember what I said about many of these tablets being receipts? This is because Cuneiform was originally developed as a method of communicating trade information over long distances. Many of the tablets recovered from Mesopotamia discuss business transactions. Over time writing became used in more areas of life and today we plaster our languages over everything.