Penn Museum Archaeochemist and International Scholars Confirm 9,000-Year History of Chinese Fermented Beverages

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Media Contact:Pam Kosty | pkosty@sas.upenn.edu | 215-898-4045December 8, 2004

PHILADELPHIA -- Chemical analyses of ancient organics absorbed, and preserved, in pottery jars from the Neolithic village of Jiahu in Northern China have revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and fruit was being produced as early as 9,000 years ago, approximately the same time that barley beer and grape wine were beginning to be made in the Middle East.  

In addition, liquids more than 3,000 years old, remarkably preserved inside tightly lidded bronze vessels, were chemically analyzed.  These vessels from the city of Anyang and an elite burial in the Yellow River Basin, dating to the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, ca. 1250-1000 B.C., contained specialized rice and millet "wines." The beverages had been flavored with herbs, flowers and/or tree resins.

The new discoveries, made by an international, multi-disciplinary team of researchers, including the University of Pennsylvania Museum's archaeochemist Patrick McGovern of the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology, provide the first direct chemical evidence for early fermented beverages in ancient Chinese culture, thus broadening understanding of the key technological and cultural roles that fermented beverages played in China.

The discoveries and their implications for understanding ancient Chinese culture have been published in the PNAS Early Edition, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: "Fermented Beverages of Pre-and Proto-historic China."  McGovern worked with researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Institute of Archaeology in Beijing, Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Firmenich Corporation, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and Institute of Microbiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  The PNAS article is available at www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0407921101.

McGovern first met with archaeologists and scientists, including his co-authors on the paper, in China in 2000, returning there in 2001 and 2002.  Chemical tests of the pottery from the Neolithic village of Jiahu were of special interest because the pottery is some of the earliest known from China. Through a variety of chemical methods including gas and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, infrared spectrometry and stable isotope analysis, fingerprint compounds were identified, including those for hawthorn fruit and/or wild grape, beeswax associated with honey and rice.

The prehistoric beverage at Jiahu, McGovern said, paved the way for unique cereal beverages of the proto-historic second millennium B.C., remarkably preserved as liquids inside sealed bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties.  The vessels had become hermetically sealed when their tightly fitting lids corroded, preventing evaporation.  Numerous bronze vessels with these liquids have been excavated at major urban centers along the Yellow River, especially from elite burials of high-ranking individuals.  Besides serving as burial goods to sustain the dead in the afterlife, the vessels and their contents can also be related to funerary ceremonies in which living intermediaries communicated with the deceased ancestor and gods in an altered state of consciousness after imbibing a fermented beverage.

"The fragrant aroma of the liquids inside the tightly lidded jars and vats, when their lids were first removed after some 3,000 years, suggested that they indeed represented Shang and Western Zhou fermented beverages, " McGovern said.  Samples of liquid inside vessels from the capital of Anyang and the Changzikou Tomb in Luyi county were analyzed.  The combined archaeochemical, archaeobotanical and archaeological evidence for the Changzikou Tomb and Anyang liquids point to their being fermented and filtered rice or millet "wines," either jiu or chang, its herbal equivalent, according to the Shang Dynasty oracle inscriptions.  Specific aromatic herbs had been added to the wines.

Both jiu and chang of proto-historic China were likely made by mold saccharification, a uniquely Chinese contribution to beverage-making in which an assemblage of mold species are used to break down the carbohydrates of rice and other grains into simple, fermentable sugars.  Yeast for fermentation of the simple sugars enters the process adventitiously, either brought in by insects or settling on to large and small cakes of the mold conglomerate, qu, from the rafters of old buildings.  As many as 100 special herbs, including wormwood, are used today to make qu, and some have been shown to increase the yeast activity by as much as seven-fold.

For McGovern, who began his role in the Chinese wine studies in 2000, this discovery offers a new chapter in the rapidly growing understanding of the importance of fermented beverages in human culture around the world.  

In 1990, he and colleagues Rudolph H. Michel and Virginia R. Badler first made headlines with the discovery of what was then the earliest known chemical evidence of wine, dating to ca. 3500-3100 B.C., from Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran.

That finding was followed up by the earliest chemically confirmed barley beer in 1992, inside another vessel from the same room at Godin Tepe that housed the wine jars.  In 1994, chemical testing confirmed resinated wine inside two jars excavated by a Penn archaeological team at the Neolithic site of Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran, dating to ca. 5400 B.C. and some 2000 years earlier than the Godin Tepe jar.  

McGovern is author of "Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture."

His research was made possible by support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Science Foundation.