Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

  • Patrick E. McGovern
University of California Press: 2009. 348 pp. $29.95, £20.95 9780520253797 | ISBN: 978-0-5202-5379-7

Barley, wheat and grapes in the Middle East; rice, millet and hawthorn fruit in China; figs and dates in the Levant; sorghum and palm sap in Africa; maize, cacao, cactus fruit, manioc and pepper-tree fruit in the Americas; and everywhere, honey. All these substrates were used by early humans in their quest for alcohol.


In Uncorking the Past, biomolecular archaeologist and University of Pennsylvania museum director Patrick McGovern argues that the desire for alcohol is innate in humans and other primates. Moreover, he believes that “the uniquely human traits” of self-consciousness, innovation, the arts and religion have been “encouraged by the consumption of an alcoholic beverage”. This is a difficult proposition to prove. In trying to do so, McGovern takes his reader on a world tour, examining the archaeological record for alcohol use across continents and cultures, searching for common themes that are indicative of universal use.

The earliest pottery artefacts with identifiable residues of a fermented beverage — arising from a mixed fermentation of rice, honey and hawthorn fruit — were found in China and date to 7000 BC. Three thousand miles away, in the Zagros mountains in western Iran, pottery dating to 3500 BC has been found with residue of tartaric acid, indicating wine storage, as well as containers with a calcium oxalate 'beerstone' residue from barley beer. In Asia, Europe and the Americas, archaeologists have unearthed buildings that were constructed for the production and storage of various alcoholic beverages. And fermentation vessels and elaborate drinking sets are found in tombs of the rich and powerful across the world. Clearly, alcohol has been a part of human civilization for millennia. But has it played a part in the development of human culture?

McGovern narrates his thoughts in the first person, as if relating them to friends over a drink. He intertwines his own research findings — detailed in his earlier book, Ancient Wine — with those of others, and tells stories of quests to recreate ancient beverages. He describes tasting 'Chateau Jiahu', a modern recreation of the earliest fermentation discovered in China; and the 'Phrygian Grog' he named 'Midas Touch', a fermented beverage based on wine grapes, honey and malted barley. The residues of this were found in bronze containers in the burial chamber of a Phrygian king, perhaps Midas, near present-day Ankara. For a general reader, the blend of fact and personal narrative is enticing, reminiscent of the mixed fermentations practised by our Neolithic ancestors; but some academics, thirsty for footnotes, may wish he had chosen a more traditional form.

McGovern begins by speculating about the role of alcohol in the Palaeolithic period, suggesting that its shamanic use, alongside other drugs, helped to develop religion and art — a proposition that is impossible to test conclusively. Neolithic and early Bronze Age cultures produced pottery and metal vessels, from which residues can be analysed. In most cases, the first fermentations were mixtures of grains, honey and wild fruit. Grains presented a problem to early brewers because the starch in the grains had to be converted to sugar before fermentation could begin. This was solved in various ways in different cultures: the use of enzymes in human saliva to break down starches is still applied in Africa and the Andes; malting and kilning of the grains is another technique, raising the possibility that beer came before bread; and the use of mould is often found in Asian rice-based brews.

Mixed fermentations, starting with higher sugar concentrations and natural yeast derived from honey and fruits, resulted in beverages of higher alcohol content than those based solely on grains. As cultures gained experience, most moved to single fermentations — beer, fruit wines or mead — with one type of beverage gaining dominance. The social importance of these beverages is reflected in the elaborate nature of fermentation vessels and drinking sets found in tombs in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Alcohol's widespread use is attested in paintings on vessels depicting communal sipping of one drink through shared straws, a scene repeated across many cultures.


The most powerful argument for alcohol as a force for innovation and social development is the claim that the initial domestication of many grains was “motivated by a desire to increase alcoholic-beverage production”, rather than to provide more food. However, only one example is explored in the book, namely the suggestion that humans were originally attracted to teosinte grass and maize (corn) because of the fermentable sweet syrup in its stalks, and that our selection of the seed kernels of these plants for food followed only afterwards.

The broader case centres on alcohol's perceived ability to spark creativity in some individuals, encouraging them to progress beyond tradition. In the words of William James: “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes.” Although that general argument resonates with this reviewer, McGovern doesn't give any specific examples of social advancement through alcohol consumption.

Uncorking the Past doesn't prove McGovern's thesis that alcohol has been a significant force in human development, but it does demonstrate that fermented beverages have been incorporated into the fabric of society for millennia. For some, taking a 'cup of kindness' may be a ticket to altered consciousness; for most, it invites sociability through temporary effects to our limbic system. Both outcomes are sorely needed in today's society.