Prehistoric China

The Wonders That Were Jiahu
The World’s Earliest Fermented Beverage

Jiahu

Early Neolithic jars, with high flaring necks and rims, from Jiahu (Henan province, China), ca. 7000-6600 B.C. Analyses by the author and his colleagues showed that such jars contained a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape). (Photograph courtesy of Z Juzhong, Z. Zhang, and Henan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, nos. M252:1, M482:1, and M253:1 (left to right), height 20 cm. (leftmost jar). (Photograph courtesy of Juzhong Zhang and Zhiqing Zhang, Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province, Zhengzhou, China.)

The earliest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world was discovered at Jiahu in the Yellow River Valley of China (Henan province), ca. 7000-6600 B.C. (Early Neolithic Period). It was an extreme fermented beverage made of wild grapes (the earliest attested use), hawthorn, rice, and honey.

The Jiahu discovery illustrates how you should never give up hope in finding chemical evidence for a fermented beverage from the Palaeolithic period. Research very often has big surprises in store. You might think, as I did too, that the grape wines of Hajji Firuz, the Caucasus, and eastern Anatolia would prove to be the earliest alcoholic beverages in the world, coming from the so-called “Cradle of Civilization” in the Near East as they do. But then I was invited to go to China on the other side of Asia, and came back with samples that proved to be even earlier–from around 7000 BC. There, at the Neolithic site of Jiahu in the Yellow River valley, the people were making, enjoying, and using what is so far the earliest chemically attested fermented beverage in the world in their burial and religious ceremonies. Like Midas Touch, it was another take on an extreme fermented beverage, and it illustrates once again the hold that alcoholic beverages have on the human race.

Most importantly, China began making pottery earlier than in the Near East (as early as 13,000 BC versus 6000 BC), and this was crucial to our discovery. Pottery is virtually indestructible, and liquids are absorbed into the pores of the pottery. As a result, ancient organics are preserved for 1000′s of years until we come along to extract and analyze them.

The pottery that we analyzed from Jiahu were jars with high necks, flaring rims and handles, which were ideally shaped to hold and serve liquids. Again, we used a whole battery of chemical tests to ferret out the original beverage.

You could call this extreme beverage a “Neolithic grog.” It was comprised of honey mead and a combined “beer” or “wine” made from rice, grapes, and hawthorn fruit. Rice is a grain, like wheat and barley, so by that definition it makes a beer (of about 4-5% alcohol), but when it’s fermented to 9-10% and has pronounced aromatic qualities, then it’s more like a wine. Maybe, the best modern comparison is with an aged Belgian ale or a barley wine. Although some ingredients have been interchanged, it’s also not all that different from Midas Touch in combining a wine, beer and mead, even if Jiahu precedes Midas by some 6000 years.

One topic ripe for discussion is how did it happen that China now has the earliest chemically attested instance of grape being used in a fermented beverage? Of course, the use of grape this early–likely a wild Chinese species such as Vitis amurensis with up to 20% simple sugar by weight–came as a great surprise. As far as we know–but continued exploration may change the picture–none of some 40 grape species found in China, the highest concentration in the world, were ever domesticated. Yet, this is the earliest evidence of the use of grape in any fermented beverage. And high-sugar fruit, with yeast on its skins, is crucial in making the argument that the liquid in the vessels wasn’t just some kind of weird concoction but actually was fermented to alcohol by the yeast.

We don’t know at this point whether hawthorn fruit or grape alone or in combination were used. After we announced that these were the most likely fruits based on our chemical results, a study of the botanical materials at the site–a discipline that has recently begun to be practiced in China–seeds of just those two fruits and no others were found. Although not helping us to decide whether either or both were used for the beverage, this provided excellent corroboration for our findings.

Jiahu isn’t just your run-of the-mill early Neolithic site. For example, it has yielded the earliest playable musical instruments in the world. Three dozen flutes were made exclusively from one wing bone of the red-crowned crane. Traditional Chinese music, using the pentatonic scale, can be played on the flutes, as demonstrated by the flautist for Beijing’s Central Orchestra of Chinese Music has produced. The flutes might well have played a role, along with the fermented beverage, in ceremonies to the ancestors, just like music and rice and millet wines Egypt (see “Research on Egyptian Medicinal Wines”) were closely associated with ancestor worship at the fabulous Shang Dynasty capital cities, such as Anyang, from about 1600 to 1050 BC, and up to present.

Jiahu has also produced what are arguably the earliest Chinese written characters ever found, incised on tortoise shells like those that occur at the fabulous Shang Dynasty capital cities, such as Anyang, thousands of years later. Such inscribed shells are believed to have been used by shaman-like priests to predict and assure a good future. We don’t know if the Jiahu shells, assuming they bear some kind of early Chinese writing, have the same significance as later, but the hypothesis gains credibility from their association with the musical instruments and especially the mixed fermented beverage, all-important parts of later Chinese religious and funerary ceremonies.

One topic ripe for discussion is how did it happen that China now has the earliest chemically attested instance of grape being used in a fermented beverage? Of course, the use of grape this early–likely a wild Chinese species such as Vitis amurensis with up to 20% simple sugar by weight–came as a great surprise. As far as we know–but continued exploration may change the picture–none of some 40 grape species found in China, the highest concentration in the world, were ever domesticated. Yet, this is the earliest evidence of the use of grape in any fermented beverage. And high-sugar fruit, with yeast on its skins, is crucial in making the argument that the liquid in the vessels wasn’t just some kind of weird concoction but actually was fermented to alcohol by the yeast.

We don’t know at this point whether hawthorn fruit or grape alone or in combination were used. After we announced that these were the most likely fruits based on our chemical results, a study of the botanical materials at the site–a discipline that has recently begun to be practiced in China–seeds of just those two fruits and no others were found. Although not helping us to decide whether either or both were used for the beverage, this provided excellent corroboration for our findings.

We could debate whether the rice in the Jiahu beverage was wild or domesticated, and whether its starch was broken down by chewing or malting. Chewing or salivating a grain, stalk or tuber to break down its starches into sugar appears to the be earliest method that humans employed for preparing their beers around the world. An enzyme–ptyalin–in human saliva acts to cleave the larger molecules into simple sugars. In modern Japan and Taiwan, communities of women still gather around a common vessel, and chew and ferment rice wine for marriage celebrations.

However the rice was broken down and fermented, it still leaves lots of debris that floats to the surface, and the best way around that is to use a drinking-tube or straw, the time honored method to drink beer in ancient Mesopotamia and rice wine in a traditional village of south China.–what you might call extreme beverage-drinking.

The same extreme fermented beverage attested at Jiahu was still being made some 5000 years later, ca. 2400-2200 B.C., at the site of Liangchengzhen in Shandong province. Anne Underhill, now of Yale University, excavates this site with her Chinese colleagues. She first invited me to the site in 1999, and I took the opportunity to travel the country in search of ancient fermented beverages.

More recently, my laboratory’s analyses of ancient Chinese beverages been expanded to include samples from Erlitou and Huizi, in collaboration with and with funding from La Trobe University (Li Liu) and the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Xingcan Chen). Since Erlitou is believed to be the capital of the first Chinese dynasty (Xia), once thought to be purely legendary, it holds out the promise of filling in the beverage gap between the Longshan period of Liangchengzhen and the Shang Dynasty.

Related to this research, additional liquid samples of western Han date (ca. 260 B.C.-8 A.D.) from Xi`an, provided through contacts at the Freer Museum, were analyzed at Firmenich Inc., Princeton, NJ (flavors and fragrances). They turned up negative.

Read the Press Release

P. E. McGovern, A. P. Underhill, H. Fang, F. Luan, G. R. Hall, H. Yu, C.-s. Wang, F. Cai, Z. Zhao, and G. M. Feinman
2005 Chemical Identification and Cultural Implications of a Mixed Fermented Beverage from Late Prehistoric China. Asian Perspectives 44: 249-75.

P. E. McGovern, J. Zhang, J. Tang, Z. Zhang, G. R. Hall, R. A. Moreau, A. Nuñez, E. D. Butrym, M. P. Richards, C.-s. Wang, G. Cheng, Z. Zhao, and C. Wang
2004 Fermented Beverages of Pre- and Proto-Historic China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 101.51: 17593-9 .