Archaeologists find earliest evidence of winemaking

U of T team contributes to discovery of 8,000-year-old wine production in ancient Middle East
Photo of wine-making
A photograph taken by a drone of excavations at the Gadachrili Gora site (photo by Stephen Batiuk)

Excavations in the Republic of Georgia by the Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition (GRAPE), a joint undertaking between the University of Toronto and the Georgian National Museum, have uncovered evidence of the earliest winemaking, made from the Eurasian grape (Vitis vinifera), anywhere in the world.

The discovery dates the origin of the practice to the early Neolithic period around 6000- 5800 BC, pushing it back 600 to 1,000 years from the previously accepted date.

The earliest previously known chemical evidence for wine dated to circa 5400-5000 BC and was from the site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, excavated by the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. Researchers now say that winemaking began earlier in the South Caucasus region, which sits at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent that stretches from Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea to the northern shores of the Persian Gulf.

Excavations have focused on two Neolithic sites (circa 6000-4500 BC): Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, approximately 50 kilometres south of the modern capital of Tbilisi. Pottery shards of jars recovered from the sites were collected and subsequently analyzed by scientists at the Penn Museum, the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Boise State University in Idaho, and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. They established the chemical composition of the jars’ residues, which had been preserved for millennia.

“We believe this is the oldest example of wine being made from the Eurasian grapevine,” said Stephen Batiuk, a senior research associate in the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations and the Archaeology Centre at U of T, and co-author of a study published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Using highly sensitive, state-of-the-art chemical techniques, including tandem liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry-mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and tartaric acid – the fingerprint compound for grape and wine – was confirmed, together with three associated organic acids (malic, succinic and citric), in the residues of eight jars.

Read about the research in the New York Times 

“It is not yet known whether the early Neolithic inhabitants of the sites made their wine from wild or domesticated grapes, but the sites lie within the area where the wild grape has grown since the end of the last Ice Age and still do today,” said Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum and lead author of the study.

“The domesticated subspecies of the fruit has 8,000-10,000 varieties of table and wine grapes worldwide,” added Batiuk. “Georgia alone is home to over 500 grape varietals, suggesting that grapes might have been domesticated here and certainly must have crossbred for a very long time.”

The base of a Neolithic jar being prepared for sampling for residue analysis (photo by Judyta Olszewski)

 GRAPE represents the Canadian component of a larger international, interdisciplinary project involving researchers from the United States, Denmark, France, Italy and Israel. The sites excavated by the U of T and Georgian National Museum team represent the remains of two villages that date back to the Neolithic period, which began around 10,000 BC in the Near East and ended around 4

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The Neolithic period was characterized by a collection of activities that include the beginning of farming, the domestication of plants and animals, the development of crafts such as pottery and weaving, and the making of polished stone tools.

“Pottery, which was ideal for processing, serving and storing fermented beverages, was invented in this period, together with many advances in art, technology and cuisine,” said McGovern, whose research group first tested a vessel from the site of Godin Tepe in central western Iran dated circa 3400-3000 BC, excavated more than 40 years ago by a team from the Royal Ontario Museum led by fellow U of T researcher T. Cuyler Young, who once taught Batiuk.

“So in many ways, this discovery brings my co-director Andrew Graham and I full circle back to the work of our professor Cuyler, who also provided some of the fundamental theories of the origins of agriculture in the Near East,” said Batiuk.

“In essence, what we are examining is how the Neolithic package of agricultural activity, tool-making and crafts, which probably initially developed farther south in the Fertile Crescent in places such as modern-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey, was adapted in new regions with different climates and plant life,” Batiuk said. “The horticultural potential of the south Caucasus might have led to the domestication of new plant species, possibly including the wild Eurasian grapevine which grows in the region, and innovative products such as wine might well have begun to be produced here on a large scale.”

The researchers say the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine was abundant at and likely in the vicinity of the sites. It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today.

Read a Guardian story on the research

Batiuk, like McGovern, envisions an ancient society in which the drinking and offering of wine penetrates and permeates nearly every aspect of life from medical practice to special celebrations, from birth to death, to everyday meals at which toasting is common.

“As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economics, and society throughout the ancient Near East,” McGovern said.

Batiuk and McGovern cite ancient viniculture as a prime example of human ingenuity in developing horticulture, and creative uses for its byproducts.

U of T student Catie Collins sifting earth from excavations, looking for ceramic and bone fragments (photo by Judyta Olszewski)
 As stated in the study, “Today, there are some 8,000-10,000 domesticated cultivars of wine, raisin, and table grapes, including a range of colors from black to red to white. They owe their origins to human selection and accidental crosses or introgression between the incoming domesticated vine and native wild vines. These varieties account for 99.9 per cent of the world’s wine production, and include famous western European cultivars such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo, and Chardonnay.”

The archaeological research was funded largely by the National Wine Agency of Georgia and the Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation of Georgia.


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