China's Fermented Past: Pottery Yields Signs of Oldest Known Wine

Article excerpt

Here's a discovery worth toasting: Chemical analyses of pottery fragments from a prehistoric village in northern China indicate that people living there between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago concocted a fermented, winelike drink from rice, honey, and fruit.

That's the oldest known evidence of an intoxicating beverage, says archaeological chemist Patrick E. McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. He led the international team that scrutinized the ancient pottery.

Until now, the earliest chemical evidence of wine came from Iranian jars from about 7,4,00 years ago. Middle Eastern beer-brewing sites date to roughly 5,000 years ago (SN: 10/2/04, p. 216).

The new results are the latest hints that modern civilizations developed in parallel in eastern Asia and the Middle East, starting around 10,000 years ago, according to McGovern. "The domestication of plants, construction of complex villages, and production of fermented drinks began at the same time in both regions," he says.

A report on the ancient Chinese wine will appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

McGovern and his coworkers used chemical solvents to extract traces of substances from fragments of 16 vessels unearthed at the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu. The team applied five analytical methods to identify chemical constituents of the material, which had been absorbed into the pottery.

The scientists isolated the chemical fingerprints of rice, beeswax that would have been associated with honey, and either hawthorn fruit or wild grape. …