The desire for a loaf of bread is thought to be one of the primary reasons that early humans abandoned their vagabond lifestyles and settled on the first farms. But new evidence indicates a jug of wine may have been equally high on their list of priorities.
Archeologists digging in the remote mountain village of Hajji Feruz Tepe in western Iran have found that shortly after humans moved into fixed houses and began tilling the soil, they had a sophisticated wine-making technology to help them ease the weariness of a long day’s toil in the fields and to comfort them on cold winter nights.
The new discovery, reported in today’s journal Nature by archeological chemist Patrick E. McGovern and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, pushes the date of the oldest known wine back to about 5400 B.C., fully 2,000 years earlier than direct evidence had previously suggested.
That’s still 1,500 or so years after the invention of the house and pottery. But the degree of sophistication betrayed by wine residue in a clay jar at Hajji Firuz indicates that oenology was a well-known subject to these early Sumerians.
“This is the earliest example of the development of this technology,” said archeobotanist Naomi Miller of the University of Pennsylvania, who was not part of the team that discovered the vessel. “It’s possible this will be the earliest that will ever be found.”
Researchers suspected that wine-making was going on during this period, said archeologist Marvin Powell of Northern Illinois University in Dekalb. “It’s very gratifying that they have now found evidence for it,” he said.
Until recently, the earliest proof of ancient wine-making was written. Egyptian tomb reliefs from about 3000 B.C. show most of the steps of wine-making, and the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh from the same period celebrated the enchanted vineyard whose wine was the source of immortality.
But physical evidence was sparse until McGovern began looking at artifacts in a new way about six years ago. Before then, most archeologists had washed newly found potsherds - pieces of pottery - before examining them closely, Miller said. But McGovern reasoned that the potsherds could contain revealing chemical traces of their original contents.
With this approach, he has consistently moved back the age of the earliest wine. Four years ago, he reported the discovery of 5,500-yearold wine residues in potsherds from the trading outpost of Godin Tepe in Iran, about 500 miles south of Hajji Firuz.
In the same room of that outpost, they subsequently found pots containing traces of beer as well - still the oldest known direct evidence of beer, although researchers are confident that humans began making brew even before they moved into houses.
Now, they have 7,400-year-old wine residues.
The world’s oldest liquor bottle was found by archeologist Mary M. Voigt of the College of William and Mary in the kitchen of a mudbrick farmhouse in the Zagros Mountains, hard by the waters of Lake Urmia.
She noticed that the 2.5-gallon jug, one of six in the room, had reddish deposits in the bottom and sent it to McGovern for analysis.
McGovern’s team found that the residue was primarily the calcium salt of tartaric acid, which is found in nature in high concentrations only in grapes. The calcium salt often crystalizes out of wines. Its presence in a container is now generally accepted as proof that the vessel once contained wine.
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