The history of Chinese wine making is now much clearer thanks to evidence collected at three archaeological sites in Hunan province. By analyzing 9000-year-old evidence of wine, archaeologists have documented the oldest known fermented beverages in China, including its ingredients.
The three sites range in age from 9000 B.C.E. through the Shang Dynasty, which lasted from roughly 1600 to 1050 B.C.E. Archaeologists found pottery shards that absorbed and preserved particles from the fermented beverages stored inside as well as bronze vessels that still contained wine. "It was an incredible moment to realize there was liquid inside the bronze jars," says archaeological chemist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He postulates that over time, corrosion sealed the tightly lidded bronze vessels and preserved the wines--some of which still retained a flowery scent--for more than 3000 years.
A team led by McGovern and archaeologist Juzhong Zhang of the University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui, China, used five analytical chemistry techniques to tease out what was in the pots and bronze vessels. All the wines exhibit the unique chemical signature of rice. The presence of beeswax in the oldest wines indicates that the earliest fermented beverages were sweetened with honey, probably to help break down rice starches into sugars needed for fermentation. The absence of beeswax in wines from the Shang Dynasty, as well as certain other chemical markers, indicate that wine-makers progressed to using mold to break down rice starches, the team writes in the 6 December Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The team also found tantalizing hints that the Chinese may have been the first people to make wine from grapes. Although grape wine has been documented in Iran as early as 5400 B.C.E., most scholars have thought that the Chinese didn't make grape wine until they learned the trick from Europeans in the second century B.C.E. However, McGovern and colleagues found very high levels of tartaric acid in the oldest Hunan wines. Grapes are high in tartaric acid and grew plentifully throughout the area. Nonetheless, McGovern cautions that the case for grapes isn't airtight. Using both ethnobotanical and archaeological evidence, his team identified several other fruits high in tartaric acid—Chinese Hawthorne fruit, Asiatic cornelian cherry, and lonyan—that were present at the sites and could have been used instead of grapes.
The study is an "extraordinarily thorough piece of impressive detective work," says archaeologist David Killick of the University of Arizona in Tucson.