Monday, December 21, 2009

Eight ancient drinks uncorked by science

Throughout human history, alcoholic beverages have treated pain, thwarted infections and unleashed a cascade of pleasure in the brain that lubricates the social fabric of life, according to Patrick McGovern, an archaeochemist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

For the past several decades, McGovern's research has focused on finding archaeological and chemical evidence for fermented beverages in the ancient world. The details are chronicled in his recently published book, “Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages.”

He argues that the mind-altering effects of alcohol and the mysterious process of fermentation may explain why these drinks dominated entire economies, religions and societies. He’s found evidence of fermented beverages everywhere he's looked, which fits his hypothesis that alcohol "had a lot to do with making us what we are in biological and cultural terms."

The author, shown here examining an ancient pottery sherd, spoke with about his research. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about 8 ancient drinks uncorked by science.

China: First known brew

While the human relationship with alcohol may trace back to our ancestors, the earliest chemical evidence for an alcoholic beverage dates back 9,000 years to the ancient village of Jiahu in China's Henan province.

Based on the analysis of residues extracted from pottery fragments, McGovern and colleagues concluded that the people were drinking a mixed wine-and-beer-like beverage made with grapes, hawthorn fruit, rice and honey. The finding was published in December 2004. The following year, McGovern collaborated with Sam Calagione and his crew at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware to re-create the millennia-old drink. Their creation, called Chateau Jiahu, won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009.

"We worked hard on getting this interpretation right. Since it does represent the oldest alcoholic beverage, it was really gratifying to get that gold tasting award," McGovern said.

Iran: Earliest evidence for barley beer

Which came first: bread or beer? The question remains unresolved, but evidence suggests barley was first cultivated about 10,000 years ago – the same time humans were abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and sowing the seeds of civilization. What was the catalyst for the transition? A steady supply of barley bread is one possibility. Brewing copious amounts of barley beer is another.

"From a pragmatic standpoint, the question is really a-no brainer," McGovern writes in his book. "If you had to choose today, which would it be? Neolithic people had all the same neural pathways and sensory organs as we have, so their choice would probably not have been much different."

Some of the earliest chemical evidence for beer comes from residues – calcium oxalate, known as beerstone – inside a jar excavated at the Godin Tepe archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains of Iran that is dated to between 3400 and 3100 B.C

Turkey: Mixed drink for Midas?

In 1957, University of Pennsylvania Museum researchers working at the Gordion archaeological site near Ankara, Turkey, broke through the wall of an elaborate tomb dated to between 740 and 700 B.C. that research suggests was the burial site of the fabled King Midas, or his father and king, Gordius. Among the remains in the tomb were the body of a 60- to 65-year-old male and the largest Iron Age drinking set ever found: 157 bronze vessels that were presumably used during the occupant's farewell feast.

In the late 1990s, McGovern and his colleagues analyzed residues inside the vessels and found evidence for a mixed beverage of grape wine, barley beer and honey mead. In March of 2000, he challenged microbrewers to make a representative concoction – and in the process prove or disprove that such grog was a plausible, enjoyable drink. Sam Calagione of the Dogfish Head brewery came through with what has become his most celebrated beverage: "Midas Touch."

Phoenicia: Active in the wine trade

Analysis of a pottery jar, or amphora, pulled up from a late 8th century B.C. shipwreck in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel offers a strong hint that the wine trade flourished as a result of Phoenician enterprise originating from the coast of Lebanon and Syria, according to McGovern.

He and his colleagues discovered that the amphora was filled with a tree-resin-infused wine. What's more, the bottle had been sealed with resin to prevent the liquid from leaking out and oxygen getting in and spoiling the wine. Other Phoenician shipwrecks found throughout the Mediterranean dating to between 1000 B.C. and 400 B.C. also contained vast stores of wine.

"Some of the people working on that area say that the wine trade was really what transferred culture from the eastern Mediterranean to the western Mediterranean, because all of these ships are just chock-full of wine-related artifacts," McGovern said.

Chile: New World’s first fermented drink?

The earliest evidence for human occupation in the New World is found at Mount Verde, Chile, an inland archaeological site that dates to about 13,000 years before present. The discovery of the site in 1977 raised the possibility that the first migrants across the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska took a water route to get to South America, not a slower-going overland trek as previously thought.

For McGovern, another intriguing possibility at Monte Verde is telling hints that these early Americans were drinking a fermented beverage. Though a drinking vessel or jug for chemical analysis has yet to be found, botanical debris at the site includes several fruits and starchy foods that could have been made into a buzz-giving drink.

"Humans are very innovative when it comes to figuring out how to make a fermented beverage, so if you've got fruits or other starchy materials that could be chewed or made into a sweet food or beverage, they'd discover how to do it. ... We just don't have the hard evidence for it yet," McGovern said.

Visit the site to read about these stories:

Honduras: Wine and chocolate

Peru: Burning down the house
Egypt: Beer helped build the pyramids

Roach, John. 2009. "Eight ancient drinks uncorked by science". MSNBC. Posted: December 17, 2009. Available online:

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