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Scientists Find Residue of the Ultimate Vintage Wine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The desire for a loaf of bread is thought to have been one of the primary reasons that early humans abandoned their vagabond lifestyles and settled on the first farms. But new evidence indicates that a jug of wine may have been equally high on their list of priorities.

Archeologists digging in the remote mountain village of Hajji Firuz Tepe in western Iran have found that shortly after humans moved into fixed houses and began tilling the soil, they had a sophisticated winemaking 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 today in the 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 is 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 the early Sumerians.

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“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 winemaking was going on during this period, said archeologist Marvin Powell of Northern Illinois University. “It’s very gratifying that they have now found evidence for it,” he said.

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Until recently, the earliest proof of ancient winemaking was written. Egyptian tomb reliefs from about 3000 BC show most of the steps of winemaking, and the Sumerian epic “Gilgamesh” from the same period celebrates an enchanted vineyard whose wine was the source of immortality.

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But physical evidence was sparse until about six years ago when McGovern began looking at artifacts in a new way. 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-year-old wine residue 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, scientists 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.

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The world’s oldest wine bottle was found by archeologist Mary M. Voigt of the College of William and Mary in the kitchen of a mud-brick 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. She 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 crystallizes out of wines. Its presence in a container is now generally accepted as proof that the vessel once contained wine.

Also present in the residue was a yellowish resin that McGovern identified as originating in the terebinth tree, which grows abundantly throughout the Near East. Terebinth resin was widely used as a medicine and wine additive in antiquity, in the latter case because it inhibits the growth of bacteria that turn wine into vinegar.

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The presence of both chemicals in the residue is a near-sure sign that the jug once contained wine, and the resin, in particular, indicates that the Sumerians had developed a technology beyond that required to simply let grape juice ferment. Other evidence of technology includes the fact that the jug’s neck was designed for pouring liquid and had a tightly fitted stopper to keep out air, which also degrades wine quality.

Winemaking was perhaps an inevitable activity in the region, McGovern said. The wild grape Vitis vinifera sylvestris, from which virtually all modern winemaking grapes descended, grew abundantly in the area. Alcohol-making yeast occurs on the skin of the grapes, so that grape juice will begin to ferment naturally at room temperature.

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In fact, Powell said, humans probably were making wine from wild grapes even before they settled in villages, perhaps in skin bags or bladders or stomachs from animals. But it was not until they began building houses that they could make wine in a systematic way and store it for long periods, he said.

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The discovery of ancient wine suggests that people may have felt 1990s-vintage stress even then. The new pressures associated with farm and village life probably accelerated its consumption, said anthropologist Solomon H. Katz of the University of Pennsylvania. People probably drank, he said, to relieve the stress of living in an increasingly complex and urbanized society. Wine also is known to improve the digestion of other foods, and it has medicinal properties as well.

The village established a pattern that would persist for a very long time. Residents of the two-bedroom bungalow grew barley and wheat for beer and bread, as well as peas and other vegetables. Their yard had ducks, dogs, cats, goats and cattle, and they hunted an occasional rabbit or deer for variety.

If they were somehow transported to the modern-day American farm, Powell said, they would probably fit in quite comfortably.


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