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The jar was just an old piece of pottery excavated on an archaeological expedition to Iran back in 1968, deposited in the University of Pennsylvania Museum and more or less forgotten. But when museum researcher Peter McGovern became fascinated by the origins of wine more than two decades later, the ancient stoneware suddenly looked a lot more interesting. It had a yellowish residue on the bottom, and McGovern, an archaeologist and chemist, decided to check it out.

It was wine, all right--but not just any wine. According to a report that appears in the current issue of the journal Nature, the narrow-necked jar dates to between 5400 B.C. and 5000 B.C., making the stuff inside the oldest wine ever found--by at least 2,000 years. In 1993 a team led by McGovern found the next oldest wine, along with the oldest-known beer (3000 B.C.).

Two telltale substances in a salt clinched the new finding: tartaric acid and resin from the terebinth tree. Tartaric acid occurs in large amounts only in grapes, and terebinth resin was a wine preservative used all over the ancient Near East up through Roman times.

The winemakers in this case were Sumerians living along what is now the Iran-Iraq border at a time when agriculture and permanent human settlements were first being established. "They were clearly a pretty sophisticated people," says McGovern. "They built reasonably complex mud-brick buildings, and we have evidence that they grew barley and wheat." Now we know they also made wine, along with the jars to store it in. Wine and civilization thus seem to have been invented at roughly the same time--a fact that the French, at least, won't find at all surprising.

--By Michael D. Lemonick