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The pottery fragments in Mc Govern's laboratory hail from Jiahu, a Neolithic dig site in the province of Henan in central China, where they were excavated in the 1980s.Little was left after nine millennia but a few salts and organic chemicals. Mc Govern boiled the shards in the solvents methanol and chloroform, then evaporated away the solvents, leaving behind an organic residue.
"Some of these rice species haven't been grown in 5,000 years," Gerhart said.
Molecular archaeology is the name for the nexus of disciplines at which Mc Govern finds himself.
He is one of a number of scientists who in the last quarter century have been using the analytic tools of modern chemistry—spectrometers and chromatographs—to scrutinize the artifacts of lost worlds, seeking evidence with which to piece together the lives of our ancestors.
There was no recipe to be followed, so it was up to Mc Govern and Gerhart to apply quantities to the ingredients.
Striving for maximum authenticity, Mc Govern suggested that the brew contain 50 percent brown rice (the technology for grinding off the outer layers of bran did not exist 9,000 years ago).
Mc Govern has made a name for himself tracking down and studying traces of prehistoric alcohol, the details of which he reveals in a recent book, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture.