April 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Vast numbers of human beings enjoy wine the planet over. But when exactly did we start producing this magical substance?

It is an undisputed fact that vast numbers of human beings enjoy wine the planet over. But knowledge of exactly how long we’ve been producing this magical substance has just been shaken up. Excavations in the republic of Georgia, by the appropriately named Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition (GRAPE), have uncovered evidence of the earliest known winemaking anywhere in the world. The discovery dates the origin of the practice to around 6000–5800 BC, the early Neolithic period, pushing it back 600–1,000 years earlier than the previously accepted date. For context, construction of Stonehenge is thought to have begun around 3100 BC, and the earliest reference to a corkscrew was just over 300 years ago. “As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economics, and societies throughout the ancient Near East,” said Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum and lead author of the study.

Shards of pottery jars, preserved for millennia, were recovered from the sites in Georgia and analysed by scientists to establish the chemical composition of the jars’ residues. Highly sensitive, state-of-the-art chemical techniques confirmed the presence of tartaric acid — the fingerprint compound for grapes and wine — together with three associated organic acids (malic, succinic, and citric), in eight jars. The findings are reported in a study this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The researchers say that the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic, and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine was likely abundant at the sites. It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to those seen in premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today. Perhaps this is history repeating itself, but it’s most likely just changes in climate.

“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,” said Stephen Batiuk, co-author of the study. “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.” This kind of study allows us to piece together human ingenuity within our ancient history and therefore gain a greater understanding of our evolution as a species. Today, we have up to 10,000 different domesticated varieties of grape in a range of shades, used for wine, raisins, and eating fresh. It has yet to be determined whether the Neolithic people at this location were using wild or domesticated grapes to produce their wine, so there are still pieces of our early agricultural history hidden in the haze of time.

Joy Aston is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner image: Kelowna Wine grapes growing in the Okanagan, Wikimedia Commons / Kelowna09