Chinese winemaking aged 9000 years
July 15, 2010 Leave a comment
Tracking ancient alcohol production is tough
The fermented grain has been the centerpiece of much of the development of human civilization. According to archaeologists, wines and beers contributed to the formation of religious practices, commerce, social interactions, and community structure. So it’s only natural that we would want to find out how and when we began purposely making such beverages to imbibe.
But alcohol evaporates easily, and being a liquid, isn’t usually preserved for archaeologists to discover thousands of years after the fact. Yet scientists have managed to get lucky and to apply a little smarts to figuring out the mysteries of ancient alcohols, and some of the best information on such beverages is now coming out of China.
The dawn of “real” human civilization?
In China, there is a famed Neolithic archaeological site where some of the oldest musical instruments and Chinese pictographs have been found. The Neolithic age, or New Stone Age, dates back to about 8000 or 9000 years, and this particular site in northern China has yielded abundant resources for investigations into the period, often viewed as the dawn of real human civilization.
Among these resources are pieces of pottery from vessels used to hold liquids. Researchers determined that these pots probably held fermented beverages because they were so similar to vessels from later periods that were known to have stored wines. To investigate their ideas, they collected pieces from the bottoms of 16 different vessels from the northern China site. The bottoms of the pots, they reasoned, would have absorbed more of the liquid and precipitates than the sides, and would thus yield more information.
Archaeo-chemists identify fine old vintage
Using various methods to identify the chemical makeup of the residues on the pots, the archaeo-chemists, as they are called, determined that the vessels once held wines made of rice or millet and flavored with tree resins, honey, and flowers. The methods they used, which included gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, pinpointed the flower residues as hawthorn or wild grape. One key component they identified was tartaric acid, which is the primary organic acid in grape wine.
At the same time they were performing these analyses on pot fragments from a 9000-year-old village, the scientists were also investigating the evidence from another lucky find. They had discovered some vessels that were part of a burial site for elite individuals living during Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, from about 1250 to 1000 B.C. These vessels had become tightly sealed as their lids had corroded and formed a barrier around the top. Perfectly preserved inside were the liquids they held, probably intended as accompaniments for the dead on their way to the next world, or possibly used in burial or visitation rituals.
Truly ancient Chinese recipes
The archaeo-chemists analyzed the contents, which looked and smelled very like the rice and millet wines that are still made today in China. They found that the vessels contained wines made of the very same components as those identified in the 9000-year-old pot fragments from the Neolithic village. The recipes appear to have been used for millennia.
The finds also indicate that the people who made the wines had a sophisticated understanding of the fermentation process. They used cakes made of various molds to break down the carbohydrates in rice or millet into simple, fermented sugars. They appear to have known that substances like wormwood—which was found in the Shan/Western Zhou analysis—would enhance the fermenting activity of the yeast considerably.
A Chinese record–for now
China now holds the record for the world’s oldest known human-directed fermentation. Iran held the previous record, based on wines found in two jars at a Neolithic site dating to 5400 B.C. The oldest known reference to a fermented beverage recipe comes from Iraq, where a clay tablet mentions how to brew beer as part of a hymn to the goddess of brewing.