As the holiday season gets underway, many people will toast the season with spirits. New findings suggest that Chinese villagers were brewing alcoholic beverages as long ago as 7,000 years B.C., just before barley beer and grape wine were starting to appear in the Middle East. The results, published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide the earliest chemical evidence yet for fermented beverages.

Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia and his colleagues evaluated shards of 16 pieces of pottery collected from a village known as Jiahu in China's Henan province. The team used a variety of techniques including mass spectrometry, chromatography and isotope analysis to analyze sections from the bottom and sides of vessels that once held liquid more than 9,000 years ago. The team looked for a key marker of fermentation, tartaric acid, which is an organic acid present in grape wine. The tests revealed that 13 of the 16 remnants came from containers that had held the same liquid, a "mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and a fruit," the authors report.

The researchers also analyzed liquids that date to more than 3,000 years ago, which were preserved inside sealed vessels. They determined that the "wines" contain herb, flower and tree resins and are very similar to herbal drinks described in inscriptions from the Shang dynasty. "The fragrant aroma of the liquids inside the tightly lidded jars and vats, when their lids were first removed after some 3,000 years, suggests that they indeed represented Shang and Western Zhou fermented beverages," McGovern says.