A team of international researchers has uncovered what appears to be the earliest evidence of deliberate winemaking on the planet. But the find, dating from about 6,000 B.C. to 7,000 B.C., isn't from any of the major winemaking regions in the Western world. Instead it comes from China, a country long believed to have no tradition of winemaking.
Previously the oldest evidence for winemaking dated to around 5,400 B.C. and was found in a Neolithic village in the Zagros Mountains of what is now northwestern Iran. Both that discovery and the China discovery were unearthed by Patrick McGovern, senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA), who specializes in analyzing food and beverage residues from archeological sites around the globe.
Beginning in 2000, McGovern traveled to China to investigate the remains of pottery jars from a Neolithic village called Jiahu, in north-central China's Henan province. Jiahu is located in the Yellow River Basin, where Chinese civilization is believed to have developed and which is noted for its remarkable cultural and artistic remains.
McGovern and his team at MASCA analyzed residues on shards of pottery found in some of Jiahu's 350 tombs and in the nearby main settlement. They determined that the shards came from jars that had at one time contained a mixed fermented beverage whose ingredients may have included wild grapes.
Using methods such as gas and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, infrared spectrometry and stable isotope analysis, the team identified so-called "fingerprint" compounds that signified the presence of rice, beeswax (honey) and either wild grapes or hawthorn berries.
"If you want to get a fermentation going, you've got to have a high-sugar fruit with yeast on its skin," McGovern said. "Honey can supply sugar, but the grapes could have supplied the yeast to get the fermentation going."
The residues contained tartaric acid, which is considered to be a fingerprint compound for grapes because in much of the world it is generally found in large quantities only in grapes. But the Chinese hawthorn berry also contains significant amounts of tartaric acid. Seeds of both wild grapes and hawthorn berries were found in the settlement site, indicating that the Neolithic inhabitants probably consumed both as food.
"China today contains upwards of 40 to 50 wild species of grapes," McGovern said. "I've been told they make wine today from local grapes in [Henan] province, where there are at least 17 wild species of grapes growing."
Wild grape species are generally considered to be too low in sugar to make drinkable wine. But Harold Olmo, viticulturist emeritus at the University of California, Davis, who has traveled and collected grape varieties around the world, said he believes China has wild varieties that may develop a sugar content as high as 30 percent when ripe.
Prior to the group's discovery, the earliest examples of grape wines in China date from the second century B.C., when a general from the Han Dynasty brought back cuttings of Vitis vinifera to the capital city of Xi'an, McGovern said. (Vitis vinifera, the species that encompasses European fine-wine grapes, may have originated in the Caucasus Mountains, although that is now disputed.) The vines were planted and used to produce what was thought to be China's first wine. But making wine from grapes never really took hold in China.
McGovern believes his group's discovery is significant because it shows the importance of fermented beverages in the emergence of civilization in general. "These traditions of fermented beverages were established very early in civilizations and serve religious, economic and social functions," he said.
Some of the tombs that contained the jars with wine residue also held some of the earliest musical instruments, domesticated rice and fruits, McGovern noted. This is similar to the situation of the Zagros villagers, who had well-built permanent homes and were in the process of domesticating wheat, barley, cattle, sheep and goats when they made wine.
"The [Jiahu] find also shows societies developing both in the East and the West about the same time," McGovern said. "They were going through tremendous changes and developing new technologies, and establishing their main domestic plants, animals and cuisine."
McGovern described the jars from which the shards and residues came as being "almost elegant, some of the earliest pottery produced in China, yet very beautifully made, high-fired and thin, and burnished on the outside."
"Jiahu is a very amazing site," McGovern concluded.