Planet Earth

Chateau Zagros

By Shanti MenonJan 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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In 1968, while excavating a 7,000-year-old Neolithic farming village in the Zagros Mountains of northern Iran, archeologist Mary Voigt of the College of William and Mary found six large clay jars in the kitchen of a mud-brick dwelling. The shape of the jars, long-necked and narrow- mouthed, suggested they had once contained a liquid--around two and a half gallons of it. Voigt thought the yellowish residue in one jar might be milk or yogurt. But nothing much came of that hunch, and the jars were filed away in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

There they remained until June 1996, when Patrick McGovern, an archeological chemist at the museum, subjected the residue to chemical analysis and found that it was not yogurt but wine--the oldest wine yet discovered. McGovern detected the telltale presence of tartaric acid, which is found in large quantities only in grapes, as well as resin from the terebinth tree, a known wine preservative of the ancient world. A reddish residue from a second jar proved to have a similar composition.

A few years ago McGovern had found evidence of wine making from a 5,000-year-old site--the previous record--farther south in the Zagros Mountains. He suspects it may have been a common Neolithic practice not only in the Zagros but also in the Caucasus Mountains of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, where numerous excavations have turned up grape remains. Domesticated plants and animals were first developed in the Neolithic period, and also pottery, McGovern says. So you’ve got all the ingredients there for people to start making wine. He thinks Neolithic wine may have tasted like retsina, a modern Greek wine that contains pine resin.

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