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4 December 2005
Wine may have been produced as far back as the Neolithic

Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology recently found evidence that the first bottles of wine may have been produced as far back as the Neolithic period—about 6,000 years ago.
     McGovern is the author of the book "Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture" and is a leader in the field of biochemical archeology. "Fermented beverages have been preferred over water throughout the ages," said McGovern on the University of Pennsylvania, MAA Web site. "Some have even said alcohol was the primary agent for the development of Western civilization."
     Scientists believe that the original inspiration for wine came from humans observing birds eating berries that had been naturally fermented. Once the idea caught on, however, other reasons for maintaining production became important. Wine can become a symbol of status or prestige. It can also become important in religion and the local economy.
     The production of wine requires a relatively "stable base of operations," McGovern stated. His research suggests that these early Near East and Egyptian communities would have been more permanent cultures with a stable food supply and domesticated animals and plants. With this abundance of food came the need for containers that were durable and made from a material that was easily pliable—like clay. The porous structure of these clay vessels is what has made it possible for scientists to analyze wine that is thousands of years old.
     Clay jars designed to hold about 2.5 gallons were found during an excavation conducted by Mary M. Voigt near the Hajji Firuz Tepe site in the Northern Zagros Mountains of Iran. A yellowish residue discovered inside a jar was tested using a variety of analyses including infrared, liquid chromatographic and wet chemical analyses. The chromatographic test showed the best proof that this was indeed wine by revealing the presence of terebinth tree resin. "In an upland region like Hajji Firuz," McGovern explained, "the wild grapevine and the terebinth tree grew together and produced their fruit and resin about the same time of year."
     The tree resin was added to the wine during fermentation to help prevent it from turning to vinegar. The combination of finding these two components in the jar together and the discovery of clay stoppers, which are the perfect size to fit the necks of the vessels, in close vicinity to the jars, all points to the probability that the grape product inside the jars was indeed wine.
     McGovern will continue his search for physical evidence of what he called "Stone Age Beaujolais nouveau," by traveling to Turkey, where he hopes to find the origins of grape domestication.

Source: The Rebel Yell (28 November 2005)

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