Patrick E. McGovern
Biomolecular Archaeology Project
University of Pennsylvania Museum
Philadelphia, PA 19104 USA

Uncorking the Past: Alcoholic Beverages as the Universal Medicine before Synthetics 

To substantiate and illustrate the centrality of Molecular Archaeology in bridging the divide between the natural sciences and the humanities, I draw upon my laboratory’s research on "fermentation" and “ancient medicine”. Fermentation is probably the first energy system on Earth, which is embodied in the physiology of all animals including humans. It is probably the first biotechnology discovered and put to use by our species. In short, we coevolved with microorganisms, then harnessed them to our purposes in many innovative ways—to provide alcohol as an energy source and for dissolving botanical compounds which have medicinal properties.
Arguably, the most important fermentation system used by humankind was to make fermented beverages. As the universal medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, religious symbol, artistic inspiration, and highly valued commodity, fermented beverages around the world became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economies, and society.
The products of fermentation likely had much to do with the evolution of our bodies, brains, and cultures, including more advanced civilization based on the domestication of cereals and other plants that provided the basis for permanent settlements.
The speaker will show how a range of increasingly more precise chemical techniques are essential to resolving key archaeological questions, including why fermented beverages are so central to human cultures around the world and as far back in time as we can detect them.

PATRICK E. MCGOVERN is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology. Over the past two decades, he has pioneered the interdisciplinary field of Biomolecular Archaeology. His laboratory discovered the earliest chemically attested alcoholic beverage in the world (ca. 7000 B.C., from China), as well as the earliest grape wine, barley beer, mead, and fermented chocolate beverages. He has published three books on ancient alcoholic beverages: Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton University, 2003/2006), recently translated into French as Naissance de la vigne et du vin (Paris: Libre & Solidaire, 2015), Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (Berkeley: University of California, 2009/2010), and Ancient Brews Rediscovered and Re-Created (New York: WW Norton, 2017), together with numerous articles.