Wine ‘discovered by Chinese female’

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Archeologists re-brew oldest alcoholic drink, revisit history of booze

CHINA’S WINE INDUSTRY is too young to compete with Europe’s, we often read in the press.

Too young? Really?

Friday staff talked to historians and found a different story.

People tend to believe reports on the internet, one said. The most common “facts” presented on the web tell readers that the oldest alcoholic drinks were from Mesopotamia, from Egypt, or from Iran. Others point to examples of wine containers found in Georgia and Armenia, some of which are 6,000 to 8,000 years old.

However, if you step away from the general internet and go to databases of academic research, you find a different story. Reports in the press often limit themselves to grape-based alcoholic drinks, but widen the scope and a different story emerges: one which really does feel like a story worth sharing.


Chinese painting (detail): Xuanconghua/ Public Domain

NINE MILLENNIA AGO, before the dawn of recorded history, a humble woman in china picked a basket of fruit and took it back to her shelter. As usual, she separated the ones that had to be left to become ripe, the ones that could be eaten immediately, and the ones that were over-ripe, having already gone soft.

            For some reason, possibly hunger, she was left with only the over-ripe ones to eat—and that’s when she made a discovery. Some of them had a really good flavor, and sometimes left her with a pleasantly relaxed feeling.

            The woman had discovered something that probably a few people (and even some apes, researchers think) would also have discovered by this time, which was that fruit sometimes goes bad in a good way. This process is called fermentation.

            Over-ripe fruit goes through natural processes and changes flavor. One variety of this process creates alcohol.

            Historians believe that an incident such as this would have led to the discovery of alcoholic drinks. It would have happened many times, But the difference between this incident at a particular location in China and previous discoveries of fermentation is this: the community took the finding and made something of it.

            People of the stone age settlement in which she lived, Jiahu in China, started to make the fermented fruit drink deliberately and store it in jars.

            This followed much experimentation, probably by the women of the settlement. 

Eventually they had settled on the best recipe:

  • Take hawthorn fruit, grapes, rice and honey.
  • Get it to ferment.
  • Put the ingredients in an earthen pot with a fire lit beneath it.
  • Store until it is ready.

            Her drink was somewhere between beer, wine, cider and mead—and the forerunner of modern alcoholic drinks.

The Chinese have made wine for millennia, as this piece of art from the Canadian Museum of Civilisation shows

            Nine thousand years later, archeologists found residue of the drink in ancient stone jars. After particle analysis, one of them worked out the recipe, brewed up the same drink. He found it was a bitter-sweet golden liquid with a foamy head, and tasted delicious.

History associates women with wine: Picture: Shin Yun-bok/ Wikimedia Commons

            We discovered something else interesting doing the research. Although males are the main drinkers of alcohol, throughout history, it was the women who were nearly always in charge of making wine and beer, and such drinks were usually associated with goddesses, not gods.

            So China’s wine industry is young? Well, depends how you look at it.


Click here for academic paper on Jiahu findings.


Main image at the top: Drinks being served: Chinese painting from the Cooper Hewitt collection, Smithsonian

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