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Uncorking the Past - Book Review

The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

by Patrick McGovern

(University of California Press, 2010 pbk.)


Uncorking the Past by Patrick McGovern

The Drunken Monkey Hypothesis proposes that human attraction to alcohol might have a genetic basis in the dependence of primates on fruit as a food source. Since alcohol naturally occurs in ripe and overripe fruit, it is possible — even probable — that early primates developed a genetically-based attraction to the substance. Undoubtedly, human alcohol consumption goes back millennia, as archaeologist Patrick McGovern shows in Uncorking the Past. He has been forensically examining the resins on ancient pottery vessels for years in his quest to uncover the world's oldest fermented drinks. The oldest discovered so far is a 9,000-year-old mixed drink or grog from Jiahu, China, "consisting of a grape and hawthorn-fruit wine, honey mead and rice beer."

Fortunately for beer and wine drinkers, McGovern is not content to simply guess what these ancient beverages might have tasted like, based on his archaeobotanical analyses. He engages experimental brewers, like Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, to recreate them, sometimes quite successfully. McGovern and Dogfish Head's partnership has resulted in Chateau Jiahu (based on the 9,000 year-old Chinese grog), Midas Touch (based on a 2,700 year-old drink discovered in the tomb of King Midas) and Theobroma (an ancient Central American concoction made with cacao). Currently acting as Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, McGovern's Uncorking the Past is a companion volume to his earlier book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2004).

Humankind's endless ingenuity has created alcoholic drinks by fermenting almost every readily available fruit and grain with a naturally high sugar content. Apart from the grape wines and wheat beers now common, there are palm, pomegranate and rice wines, millet and sorghum beers, honey meads, corn chichas and much more. In the process of shedding light on these ancient drinks, McGovern illuminates much else besides, including shamanism, burial practices, shipwrecks, Neolithic art and linguistics. McGovern comments on the 1950s anthropological debate about whether beer production preceded that of bread or vice versa, saying that beer probably did precede bread, but that neither came first. Rather, wine and honey mead would have been produced before beer because they are easier to make.

McGovern makes his otherwise densely informative book easier to read, and sometimes entertaining, with the addition of numerous purple passages, photographs and maps. Uncorking the Past reads, at times, like travel literature, though its primary subject is archaeology, anthropology and ancient history. Whether foraging for wild grapes in eastern Turkey, attending academic conferences in Spain and Italy, or examining ancient pottery in his Pennsylvania laboratory, McGovern is an astute observer, with a keen eye for detail as well as the big picture. A vivid and fascinating description of the origins, spread and diversity of ancient fermented drinks, his Uncorking the Past sheds as much light on the present as it does on the past.

Reviewed by Barnaby Hughes


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