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The Origin of Wine

Imbibing the liquid of fermented fruit may have had its start in medicinal traditions



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Although microbes may have invented alcohol, it was the mammals that mastered it. Usually this meant simply munching on one overripe palm fruit too many—but then there are Indian elephants, which are known to have a hankering for liquor and rice beer. From tipsy tree shrews to drunken monkeys, the primate lineage crawls with critters getting high off the hooch. And with our fruit-eating pedigree, 10 percent of the modern human liver's enzymes are solely dedicated to turning alcohol into energy. In all likelihood, the hangover has been a part of human history a lot longer than the goblet.

Just how long did it take before humans started intentionally transforming nature's botanical bounty into Calvados and Cabernet?  The oldest fermented beverage known is a 9,000-year-old rice and honey wine identified on pottery shards from the village of Jiahu in central China. According to biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, the wine likely got most of its sugars from the Chinese hawthorn fruit and wild grapes, the seeds of which have also been found at the site. Like the Andean communities today that make chicha from maize, Chinese beverage-makers probably chewed up rice kernels and spit the mash into a communal pot to brew with fruit. It would take another 5,000 years before the Chinese developed their complex amylolysis fermentation system: growing molds on steamed cakes of cereals and herbs and adding them to rice brew.

Meanwhile, humans in the region around Armenia and Georgia were likely just beginning to muck around with the common grape, Vitis vinifera. McGovern has identified residues of tartaric acid from grapes in 7,400-year-old jars discovered in a mud-brick building in Iran's Zagros Mountains. Because the pots also had remnants of terebinth tree resin—later described by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder as a wine preservative—the grape juice seems to have been intentionally fermented.

But winemaking likely dates back much further than the archaeological record indicates—perhaps deep into the Paleolithic period—and its origins may have less to do with our pleasure centers than with our quest to develop medicines. "Alcohol was the universal drug," McGovern says. "It's a mysterious beverage that tastes good and provides energy; it's a social lubricator with mind-altering effects, and it has all these medical properties."

In May, his team identified the first chemical evidence for ancient Egyptian medicines in vessels from the 5,000-year-old tomb of Pharaoh Scorpion I—and they were spiked with grape wine imported from the Jordan River valley. Even the Egyptians knew that the active compounds in plants, like alkaloids and terpenoids, are best dissolved in an alcoholic medium, which is either imbibed or applied to the skin.

Although scientists agree on the health benefits of drinking in moderation, they still argue about whether swigging a glass of Merlot each day really helps us live longer. Even so, it's hard to imagine life—or civilization—without it. As McGovern puts it: "It's so much a part of human history and who we are."

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