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Uncorking the Past

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Published on May 4, 2012

Uncorking the Past: The Archaeological and Chemical Hunt for the Origins of Viniculture

Cornell University Department of Horticulture seminar series, May 3, 2012

Dr. Patrick E. McGovern is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory 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 exciting interdisciplinary field of Biomolecular Archaeology which is yielding whole new chapters concerning our human ancestry, medical practice, and ancient cuisines and beverages.

Following a tantalizing trail of archaeological and chemical clues around the world and through the millennia, McGovern, tells the compelling story of humanity's ingenious, intoxicating quest for the perfect drink. Whether it be mind-altering, medicinal, a religious symbol, a social lubricant, or artistic inspiration, fermented beverages have not only been a profound force in history, but they may be fundamental to the human condition itself.

The history of civilization is, in many ways, the history of wine. Drawing upon recent archaeological discoveries, molecular and DNA sleuthing, and the texts and art of long-forgotten peoples,McGovern takes us on a fascinating odyssey back to the beginnings of this consequential beverage when early hominids probably enjoyed a wild grape wine. We follow the course of human ingenuity in domesticating the Eurasian vine and learning how to make and preserve wine some 7,000 years ago. Early winemakers must have marveled at the seemingly miraculous process of fermentation.

From success to success, viniculture stretched out its tentacles and entwined itself with one culture after another. From Phoenicia and Egypt, the "wine culture" went from east to west to Crete, Etruria, and on to France. There, the Cistercian monks of Burgundy A.D. are said to have literally "tasted the soils" of the Côte d'Or, beginning in the 12th c., and established some of the finest terroirsfor Chardonnay and Pinot Noir over the next eight centuries. These wines have became a model for the rest of the world.

In short, wine laid the foundation for civilization itself. As medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economies, and society. As an evocative symbol of blood, it was used in temple ceremonies and occupies the heart of the Eucharist. Kings celebrated their victories with wine and made certain that they had plenty for the afterlife. We have this heritage to thank for both the marvelous wines of the Old World, as well as the many "wine cultures" of the New World established over the past 40 years.

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