China’s Fermented Past: Pottery yields signs of oldest known wine

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.

JARRING FINDS. A 3,000-year-old Chinese bronze jar (left) was found to still contain a rice or millet wine. Researchers have also discovered remnants of a fermented drink in fragments of 9,000-year-old Chinese vessels such as the three on the right. Z. Zhang/Inst. of Cultural Relics and Archaeol. of Henan Province

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 7,400 years ago. Middle Eastern beer-brewing sites date to roughly 5,000 years ago (SN: 10/2/04, p. 216: Original Microbrews).

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. The chemical structures of these extracts closely match those of modern rice and grape wines, the researchers say.

Further analyses indicated that the fermented drinks in the Chinese vessels set the stage for more-advanced winemaking techniques that appeared around 3,000 years ago. Dozens of bronze jars found at Chinese settlements from that time still contain liquid. Corroded lids sealed these vessels and prevented their contents from evaporating.

Liquid from two such vessels, both found in tombs of high-ranking individuals, exhibits chemical signs associated with fermented, filtered rice or millet wine, the researchers report.

The still-intact beverages were probably made in a process that the Chinese continue to employ today, McGovern says. First, wine-makers add various molds to break down rice or millet into fermentable sugars. The vintners often store lumps of these sugars in barns, where yeasts thrive. Yeast cells infiltrate the sugars, and the winemakers add to their brews a variety of herbs that increase the yeast’s fermentation activity.

Researchers have long suspected that the Chinese made alcoholic beverages several thousand years ago, notes biochemist Hsing-Tsung Huang of the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, England, who studies ancient Chinese food and drink. However, the evidence from Jiahu “is earlier than what most scholars had in mind,” he says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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