Books by McGovern, Patrick E.

McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-520-25379-7.
While a variety of animals are attracted to and consume the alcohol in naturally fermented fruit, only humans have figured out how to promote the process, producing wine from fruit and beer from cereal crops. And they've been doing it since at least the Neolithic period: the author discovered convincing evidence of a fermented beverage in residues on pottery found at the Jiahu site in China, inhabited between 7000 and 5800 B.C.

Indeed, almost every human culture which had access to fruits or grains which could be turned into an alcoholic beverage did so, and made the production and consumption of spirits an important part of their economic and spiritual life. (One puzzle is why the North American Indians, who lived among an abundance of fermentable crops never did—there are theories that tobacco and hallucinogenic mushrooms supplanted alcohol for shamanistic purposes, but basically nobody really knows.)

The author is a pioneer in the field of biomolecular archæology and head of the eponymous laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archæology and Anthropology; in this book takes us on a tour around the world and across the centuries exploring, largely through his own research and that of associates, the history of fermented beverages in a variety of cultures and what we can learn from this evidence about how they lived, were organised, and interacted with other societies. Only in recent decades has biochemical and genetic analysis progressed to the point that it is possible not only to determine from some gunk found at the bottom of an ancient pot not only that it was some kind of beer or wine, but from what species of fruit and grain it was produced, how it was prepared and fermented, and what additives it may have contained and whence they originated. Calling on experts in related disciplines such as palynology (the study of pollen and spores, not of the Alaskan politician), the author is able to reconstruct the economics of the bustling wine trade across the Mediterranean (already inferred from shipwrecks carrying large numbers of casks of wine) and the diffusion of the ancestral cultivated grape around the world, displacing indigenous grapes which were less productive for winemaking.

While the classical period around the Mediterranean is pretty much soaked in wine, and it'd be difficult to imagine the Vikings and other North Europeans without their beer and grogs, much less was known about alcoholic beverages in China, South America, and Africa. Once again, the author is on their trail, and not only reports upon his original research, but also attempts, in conjunction with micro-brewers and winemakers, to reconstruct the ancestral beverages of yore.

The biochemical anthropology of booze is not exactly a crowded field, and in this account written by one of its leaders, you get the sense of having met just about all of the people pursuing it. A great deal remains to be learnt—parts of the book read almost like a list of potential Ph.D. projects for those wishing to follow in the author's footsteps. But that's the charm of opening a new window into the past: just as DNA and other biochemical analyses revolutionised the understanding of human remains in archæology, the arsenal of modern analytical tools allows reconstructing humanity's almost universal companion through the ages, fermented beverages, and through them, uncork the way in which those cultures developed and interacted.

A paperback edition will be published in December 2010.

October 2010 Permalink