The Origin of Wine

Consuming the fermented liquid from the fruit could have originated in traditional medicine.

Although microbes could have created the alcoholic drink, mammals were the first to master the art of drinking it. The most common method was to eat palm fruits that were overripe more than enough. But then, you have Indian elephants believed to crave alcohol and rice beer. From the shrews of the tree who are drunk to alcoholic monkeys, the primate lineage is awash with animals high from the hooch. With our pedigree of eating fruit, 10 percent of modern liver enzymes exclusively focus on turning the energy of alcohol. The hangover is likely an aspect of human history for older than the goblet.

How long did it take for humans to begin deliberately transforming the bounty of nature into Calvados or Cabernet? The oldest known fermented drink is 9000-year-old honey and rice wine discovered on pottery shards in the town of Jiahu in Central China. Based on biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, The wine probably got the majority of its sugars via the Chinese hawthorn, and wild grapes seeds have also been discovered on the site. Much like the Andean communities that today produce chicha using maize, Chinese beverage makers likely chewed rice kernels before throwing the mixture into a pot to drink with fruits. It took another 5,000 years until the Chinese invented their sophisticated amylolysis fermentation method: creating molds on cooked cakes of herbs and cereals and mixing them into rice beer.

While they were at it, the area around Armenia or Georgia was likely just getting into the game of the popular vine, Vitis vinifera. McGovern has found evidence of tartaric acid in grapes in 7,400-year-old containers in a mud-brick construction in Iran’s Zagros Mountains. The jars also contained remnants of the terebinth tree resin – later mentioned as a preservative by Roman naturalist Pliny, the Elder as a wine preserver–the wine juice appears to have been deliberately fermented.

The winemaking process is believed to have existed longer than the archeological evidence suggests–perhaps even into the Paleolithic period. Its origins could be less connected with our enjoyment centers than the quest for developing medications. “Alcohol was the universal drug,” McGovern states. “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.”

His team in May found the first evidence of chemical origin for the use of ancient Egyptian medicinal products in vessels found in the ancient tomb of Pharaoh Scorpion I–and they were infused with wine sourced through The Jordan River valley. It was not just the Egyptians who were aware that the active substances in plants, including alkaloids and terpenoids, are most effective when dissolved in an alcohol-based medium consumed or applied on the skin.

While scientists agree on the benefits to health of drinking moderately, they are still arguing over the possibility that sipping the occasional Merlot every day can help people live longer. Even so, it’s hard to imagine life–or civilization–without it. McGovern states: “It’s so much a part of human history and who we are.”

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