Monkey Wine

drunk monkeysMuch has been discovered recently about the early history of wine. As Christopher Howard writes in “Five Turning points in the Evolution of Wine”,

This most human and ancient of beverages is ripe for anthropological investigation. Archaeologists have excavated an Armenian cave that’s home to the world’s oldest-known winery, analyzed residue from 9,000-year-old Chinese pots in search of the chemical signature of grapes, and dove into the ocean to examine Greek wine amphorae in a shipwreck.

The domestication of grapes likely happened in the Neolithic period (8500-4000 BCE) in the region now comprised of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The primary evidence comes from an analysis of differences between wild and domesticated grape seeds uncovered at archeological sites along with the discovery of grape wine residue in Neolithic pottery vessels.

But wine probably existed before humans began to farm grapes.

Anthropologists, however, largely support the Paleolithic hypothesis, developed by anthropologist Patrick McGovern, to explain how the world’s first grape wine was made. Here’s how it (probably) went down:

While gathering food, roaming bands of humans chanced upon wild grapes, which they placed in woven baskets or gourds (since we’re talking about life before ceramics) and brought them back to camp. The weight of the fruit on top crushed some grapes, and juice pooled at the bottom of the vessel. In the warm climate, it would take only a few days for the yeast on the grape skins to begin fermenting the liquid.

After eating all the grapes, our ancestors must have been enchanted by the aromatic, mildly intoxicating juice.

There is no evidence of this yet; it’s just informed speculation. But if we’re going to speculate why stop there:

According to the drunken monkey hypothesis, conceived by integrative biologist Robert Dudley in the early 2000s, early hominids and other primate species have had a taste for boozy fruit for millions of years. Dudley has suggested three reasons for this predilection:

  • Fermenting fruit was easier to smell and locate—and hence, consume.
  • It offered healthy probiotics and antimicrobial properties, plus a caloric boost: Ethanol (the alcohol produced when yeast ferments sugars) has nearly twice the calories of carbohydrates.
  • The mild buzz of ethanol eased the tension of life in the jungle. Alcohol levels were low, and consumption was moderate, since properly drunken monkeys would have made easy prey.

At least 10 million years ago, a critical gene mutation in primates created the ADH4 enzyme, which made it possible to digest ethanol up to 40 times faster than previous species did. The enzyme allowed our ape ancestors to enjoy even more overripe, fermenting fruit without suffering ill effects.

Since grapes didn’t grow in sub-Saharan Africa, our Homo ancestors probably made the world’s first wines by fermenting high-sugar fruits like figs or marula, a tart, juicy tree fruit.

It’s well said that human beings are nothing but jumped up East African plains apes. A taste for wine is just the latest example.

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