Perhaps a good vintage? Scientist claims signs of wine making in the Stone Age

5,400 B.C.


PHILADELPHIA -- Before man invented the wheel or wrote the first word, he made wine.

A scientist today announced the earliest evidence of wine making in the form of a yellowish stain on a fragment of a 7,000-year-old pottery jar. Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist from the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed the relic excavated from a mountainous region of northern Iran. He found that the stain contained traces of tartaric acid, a telltale sign of wine.

Because of the light color, he said, "We think it might be a white wine." McGovern also found tree resin, which he said was used to preserve the wine and possibly mask any vinegary taste, a problem that may have been harder to avoid in the days before glass.

The date, 5,400 to 5,000 B.C., pushes back the earliest known date of wine making by 2,000 years, to the late Stone Age.

"This was the time of the formation of the first permanent settlements," McGovern said. People had domesticated barley, goats, cattle and pigs. They may have begun to cultivate grapes, McGovern said, but it is more likely that they used the wild grapes that flourish in this part of what is now the Middle East.

Archaeologists have known that wine drinking has ancient roots. By the time of the ancient Egyptians, wine had become extremely popular.

"We have beautiful tomb reliefs showing grape vines grown on trellises," McGovern said. The artwork also shows the way the Egyptians pressed the grapes, by foot, and further extracted juice by gathering the grapes in bags and beating them with sticks.

But because grapes are not native to Egypt, many suspected that wine originated earlier, around what is now the Middle East, where wild grapes still flourish.

A breakthrough came in 1990, when Virginia Badler, a graduate student at Haverford College, discovered a red stain on an urn from western Iran that dated to 3500 B.C. An analysis revealed the characteristic wine residues of tartaric acid.

Today's findings, published in this week's issue of the journal Nature, pushed that date back further.

There's no reason to think wine drinking could not go back more than 100,000 years, McGovern said. Even primitive hunter-gatherers could have picked wild grapes and fermented them in leather bags or stone vessels.

The invention of pottery around 8000 B.C. probably greatly advanced the wine-making art, allowing people to keep out the air, which turns wine to vinegar.

The site of the early wine also yielded pottery "corks" or stoppers that would have sealed the bottle. McGovern and Badler are also known for a 1990 discovery of the earliest evidence for beer, based on residues left on a pottery shard found in Iran and dating to around 3,100 B.C.

Almost every group of people around the world has developed some form of alcoholic beverage. McGovern said, "Everyone made alcohol except for people of Tierra del Fuego and the Eskimos," who lived in areas too cold to allow things to ferment.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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