Fermented Foods and Human History

The Complete Grape Growing System

The Complete Grape Growing System

Get Instant Access

Fermented foods were very likely among the first foods consumed by human beings.This was not because early humans had actually planned on or had intended to make a particular fermented food, but rather because fermentation was simply the inevitable outcome that resulted when raw food materials were left in an otherwise unpreserved state.When,for example, several thousands of years ago, milk was collected from a domesticated cow, goat, or camel, it was either consumed within a few hours or else it would sour and curdle, turning into something we might today call buttermilk.A third possibility, that the milk would become spoiled and putrid, must have also occurred on many occasions. Likewise, the juice of grapes and other fruits would remain sweet for only a few days before it too would be transformed into a pleasant, intoxicating wine-like drink. Undoubtedly, these products provided more than mere sustenance; they were also probably well enjoyed for aesthetic or organoleptic reasons.Importantly, it must have been recognized and appreciated early on that however imperfect the soured milk, cheese, wine, and other fermented foods may have been (at least compared to modern versions),they all were less perishable and were usually (but not always) safer to eat and drink than the raw materials from which they were made. Despite the "discovery" that fermented foods tasted good and were well preserved, it must have taken many years for humans to figure out how to control or influence conditions to consistently produce fermented food products. It is remarkable that the means for producing so many fermented foods evolved independently on every continent and on an entirely empirical basis. Although there must have been countless failures and disappointments, small "industries," skilled in the art of making fermented foods, would eventually develop. As long ago as 3000 to 4000 B.C.E., for example, bread and beer were already being mass produced by Egyptian bakeries and Babylonian breweries. Likewise, it is clear from the historical record that the rise of civilizations around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East and Europe coincided with the production and consumption of wine and other fermented food and beverage products (Box 1-1). It is noteworthy that the fermented foods consumed in China, Japan, and the Far East were vastly different from those in the Middle East; yet, it is now apparent that the fermentation also evolved and became established around the same time.

Fermentation became an even more widespread practice during the Roman Empire, as

Box 1—1. Where and When Did Fermentations Get Started? Answers from Biomolecular Archaeologists

Although the very first fermentations were certainly inadvertent, it is just as certain that human beings eventually learned how to intentionally produce fermented foods. When, where, and how this discovery occurred have been elusive questions, since written records do not exist. However, other forms of archaeological evidence do indeed exist and have made it possible to not only establish the historical and geographical origins of many of these fermentations, but also to describe some of the techniques likely used to produce these products.

For the most part, investigations into the origins of food fermentations have focused on alcoholic fermentations, namely wine and beer, and have been led primarily by a research group at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology's Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (http://masca.museum.upenn.edu). These "biomolecular archaeologists" depend not so much on written or other traditional types of physical evidence (which are mostly absent), but rather on the chemical and molecular "records" obtained from artifacts discovered around the world (McGovern et al., 2004).

Specifically, they have extracted residues still present in the ancient clay pottery jars and vessels found in excavated archaeological sites (mainly from the Near East and China).Because these vessels are generally porous, any organic material was adsorbed and trapped within the vessel pores. In a dehydrated state, this material was protected against microbial or chemical decomposition. Carbon dating is used to establish the approximate age of these vessels, and then various analytical procedures (including gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy, Fourier transform infrared spectrometry, and other techniques) are used to identify the chemical constituents.

The analyses have revealed the presence of several marker compounds, in particular, tartaric acid, which is present in high concentrations in grapes (but is generally absent elsewhere), and therefore is ordinarily present in wine, as well (Guash-Jane et al., 2004; McGovern, 2003). Based on these studies (and others on "grape archaeology"), it would appear that wine had been produced in the Near East regions around present-day Turkey, Egypt, and Iran as long ago as the Neolithic Period (8500 to 4000 B.C.E.).

Recent molecular archaeological analyses have revealed additional findings.In 2004, it was reported that another organic marker chemical, syringic acid (which is derived from malvidin, a pigment found in red wines), was present in Egyptian pottery vessels. This was not a real surprise, because the vessels were labeled as wine jars and even indicated the year, source, and vintner.What made this finding especially interesting, however, was that one of the vessels had originally been discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (King Tut, the "boy king").Thus, not only does it now appear that King Tut preferred red wine, but that when he died (at about age 17), he was, by today's standards, not even of drinking age.

new raw materials and technologies were adopted from conquered lands and spread throughout the empire. Fermented foods also were important for distant armies and navies, due to their increased storage stability. Beer and wine, for example, were often preferred over water (no surprise there), because the latter was often polluted with fecal material or other foreign material. During this era, the means to conduct trade had developed, and cheese and wine, as well as wheat for bread-making, became available around the Mediterranean, Europe, and the British Isles.

Although manufacturing guilds for bread had existed even during the Egyptian empire, by the Middle Ages, the manufacture of many fermented foods, including bread, beer, and cheese, had become the province of craftsmen and organized guilds. The guild structure involved apprenticeships and training; once learned, these skills were often passed on to the next generation. For some products, particularly beer, these craftsmen were actually monks operating out of monasteries and churches, a tradition that lasted for hundreds of years. Hence, many of the technologies and

Box 1—1. Where and When Did Fermentations Get Started? Answers from Biomolecular Archaeologists (Continued)

As noted above, the origins of wine making in the Near East can be reliably traced to about 5400 B.C.E.The McGovern Molecular Archaeology Lab group has also ventured to China in an effort to establish when fermented beverages were first produced and consumed (McGovern et al., 2004).As described in Chapter 12,Asian wines are made using cereal-derived starch rather than grapes. Rice is the main cereal used. Other components, particularly honey and herbs, were apparently added in ancient times.

As had been done previously, the investigators analyzed material extracted from Neolithic (ca. 7000 B.C.E.) pottery vessels. In this case, the specific biomarkers would not necessarily be the same as for wine made from grapes, but rather would be expected to reflect the different starting materials. Indeed, the analyses revealed the presence of rice, honey, and herbal constituents, but also grapes (tartaric acid). Although domesticated grape vines were not introduced into China until about 200 B.C.E., wild grapes could have been added to the wine (as a source of yeast). Another explanation is that the tartaric acid had been derived from other native fruits and flowers.Additional analyses of "proto-historic" (ca. 1900 to 700 B.C.E.) vessels indicate that these later wines were cereal-based (using rice and millet). Thus, it now appears clear that fermented beverage technology in China began around the same time as in the Near East, and that the very nature of the fermentation evolved over several millennia.


Guasch-Jane, M.R., M. Ibern-Gomez, C.Andres-Lacueva, O. Jauregui, and R.M. Lamuela-Raventos. 2004. Liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry in tandem mode applied for the identification of wine markers in residues from ancient Egyptian vessels.Anal. Chem. 76:1672-1677. McGovern, PE. 2003.Ancient Wine:The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.

McGovern, P.E., J. Zhang,J.Tang, Z. Zhang, G.R. Hall, R.A. Moreau,A. Nunez, E.D. Butrym, M.P. Richards, C.S.Wang, G. Cheng, Z. Zhao, and C.Wang. 2004. Fermented beverages of pre- and proto-historic China. Proc. Nat.Acad. Sci. 101:17593-17598.

manufacturing practices employed even today were developed by monks. Eventually, production of these products became more privatized, although often under some form of state control (which allowed for taxation).

From the Neolithic Period to the Middle Ages to the current era, fermented foods have been among the most important foods consumed by humans (Figure 1-1). A good argument can be made that the popularity of fermented foods and the subsequent development of technologies for their production directly contributed to the cultural and social evolution of human history. Consider, after all, how integral fermented foods are to the diets and cuisines of nearly all civilizations or how many fermented foods and beverages are consumed as part of religious customs, rites, and rituals (Box 1-2).

Was this article helpful?

+1 0
Brew Your Own Beer

Brew Your Own Beer

Discover How To Become Your Own Brew Master, With Brew Your Own Beer. It takes more than a recipe to make a great beer. Just using the right ingredients doesn't mean your beer will taste like it was meant to. Most of the time it’s the way a beer is made and served that makes it either an exceptional beer or one that gets dumped into the nearest flower pot.

Get My Free Ebook


  • bruno
    What is a fermented middle east beverage?
    9 years ago
    How did early humans ferment foods?
    1 year ago

Post a comment