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Scientists Find Evidence of 9,000-Year-Old Wine in China

Here is a toast, a tip of the glass, to the U.S. and Chinese researchers who have found the oldest known physical evidence of alcoholic beverages. They have discovered the chemical residue of a sweet, 9,000-year-old rice wine on pieces of ancient jugs dug up in Henan Province in China.

The fertile valley of the Yellow River in Henan is the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was there the Chinese developed settled agriculture and pictographic writing. A stone age village in the province [Jiahu] has yielded archeological evidence of the earliest domesticated rice and the earliest playable musical instruments.

This is also site where Chinese researchers have dug up ancient shards of pottery that once held a fermented drink, shards scientifically dated to between 7,500 and 9,000 years ago. According to a study in the Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences, chemical analysis reveals that the drink in them was an alcoholic mixture of rice, honey, and fruit - most likely hawthorn berries or grapes.

"It is the first time that there has been chemical confirmation of fermented beverages from China," said University of Pennsylvania archeologist Patrick McGovern, a collaborator on the project. In the 1990s, Mr. McGovern found trace evidence of 5,000-year-old beer and wine in jugs excavated from villages in Iran and Iraq. He says the Chinese wine discovery is older.

"It is earlier than anything we have from the Middle East, although the times are very close to each other," he said. "The earliest phase of this in both western Asia and eastern Asia could be similar in that they both are experimenting with honey with some kind of fruit and some kind of grain - barley in western Asia and rice in East Asia - but the concept is very similar and it's occurring about the same time."

The fruit and honey were necessary to provide the sugars for the fermentation process. But the researchers also describe archeological evidence they found of a much later, unique fermentation method, still practiced in China, in which mold is used to break down the grain starches into the sugars needed for fermentation. To the researchers' surprise, the 3,000-year-old tombs of Chinese elites yielded tightly sealed bronze jars that, when opened, still contained wine made this way.

"It did not come in by groundwater. It is the original liquid because when you take the lid off, you can actually smell this aromatic quality to it," he said. "I could not believe you could get a liquid lasting for 3,000 years! But the Chinese metal workers made such tight lids that you would get a certain amount of evaporation, and then they would start to rust and seal it off in a hermetic way that you don't get any more evaporation. "

The Pennsylvania archeologist says that by 3,000 years ago, Chinese winemakers had improved their techniques, specializing in rice and millet wines and flavoring them with various aromatic herbs, flowers, and barks.

In his recent book on the history of winemaking, Mr. McGovern says fermented beverages have played key roles in the development of human culture because of their perceived medical, nutritional, and mind altering benefits. He says they have been consumed at all levels of society for thousands of years to mark major life events as well as victories, harvests, and other important occasions.

In China, for example, wine was essential at funerals.

"They have descriptions in the Chinese literature where one person who is carrying out the funeral has to drink so many cups of rice wine and that would make him inebriated. The suggestion has been made, which I think is a good one, that they did look upon this alcoholic inebriation as a way to communicate with the spirits and the ancestors," he explained.

Mr. McGovern says early Chinese texts also show that fermented beverages and other foods were offered as sacrifices to ancestors or gifts to the newly deceased to provide sustenance in the afterlife.