World’s oldest known evidence of winemaking discovered in Georgia

world-oldest-winemaking-georgia_3Neolithic houses at the Gadachrili Gora. Credit: Stephen Batiuk.

Historians have always considered Georgia as the cradle of winemaking, while their southern Mesopotamian neighbors were adept at crafting beer. And now archaeology bolsters this theory, with an excavation project conducted inside the Republic of Georgia revealing the evidence of the world’s earliest known winemaking. A collaborative effort, aptly known as Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition (GRAPE), from the University of Toronto and the Georgian National Museum, unraveled how the process harked back to the Neolithic period, circa 6000 BC.

Now it should be noted that the previously oldest known chemical evidence for winemaking came from a particular site atop the Zagros Mountains of Iran, and its dating revealed a period from circa 5400-5000 BC. Simply put, the new discovery sets back the origins of winemaking by at least 600 years, with the excavation project focusing on two Early Ceramic Neolithic sites (6000-4500 BC) called Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, both of which are just around 32 miles from the capital city of Tbilisi.

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A Neolithic Qvevri (wine jar) from the site of Khramis Didi Gora. Credit: Judyta Olszewski

Delving into details, the archaeologists were able to salvage and analyze some pottery fragments of the ceramic jars recovered from the sites. This state-of-the-art analysis, headed by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, entailed chemical extraction of remnant components, which revealed the presence of tartaric acid, the fingerprint compound for grape and wine. The researchers were also able to discern residues of wine-related organic acids like malic, succinic and citric. As Stephen Batiuk, co-author of the study explained –

We believe this is the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine. The domesticated version of the fruit has more than 10,000 varieties of table and wine grapes worldwide. Georgia is home to over 500 varieties of wine alone, suggesting that grapes have been domesticated and cross-breeding in the region for a very long time.

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The base of a Neolithic jar. Credit: Judyta Olszewski

Now historically, the Neolithic Era in itself (roughly extending between 15000-4500 BC) brought forth an ‘explosion’ of various human inventions and innovations, ranging from agriculture, animal domestication to wheels to latent urbanization. Additionally, it also heralded the development of crafting techniques, which in turn led to the mass-production of ceramic vessels in various cultures across Eurasia. As Batiuk clarified –

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. This methodology for identifying wine residues in pottery was initially developed and first tested on a vessel from the site of Godin Tepe in central western Iran, excavated more than 40 years ago by a team from the Royal Ontario Museum led by fellow U of T researcher T. Cuyler Young. 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.

In essence, what we are examining is how the Neolithic package of agricultural activity, tool-making, and crafts that developed further south in modern Iraq, Syria and Turkey adapted as it was introduced into different regions with different climate and plant life. The horticultural potential of the south Caucasus was bound to lead to the domestication of many new and different species, and innovative ‘secondary’ products were bound to emerge.

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Gadachrili Gora. Credit: Stephen Batiuk

According to the researchers, their assessment, based on not just chemical evidence but also botanical and climatic factors, demonstrates that the Eurasian grapevine Vitis vinifera was abundant around the said sites. In other words, many of these regions were probably similar to the renowned present-day winemaking regions of France and Italy. Batiuk talked about how the domestication of grapes and the associated progress made in viniculture rather led to the advancement of horticulture –

The infinite range of flavors and aromas of today’s 8,000-10,000 grape varieties are the end result of the domesticated Eurasian grapevine being transplanted and crossed with wild grapevines elsewhere over and over again. The Eurasian grapevine that now accounts for 99.9 percent of wine made in the world today, has its roots in Caucasia.

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Credit: Judyta Olszewski

And finally, we must also understand the social aspect of wine, which does explain its seemingly sudden popularity in human history. To that end, wine as a ‘social lubricant’ was utilized in various ceremonies, festivities and even ritual purposes, ranging from feasts, gatherings, cuisines to even prescribed medicines. For example, the Celtic nobles and warlords (during circa 5th – 2nd century BC) perceived wine as a luxury commodity that was imported from the southern Greco-Roman lands, in return for slaves. This acquired wine, in turn, was distributed among his retainers that would actually reinforce his standing within the tribe structure.

The study was originally published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Toronto

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