<h4 style="display:none;" Science —

Even 8,000 years ago, a meal without wine was like a day without sunshine

Earliest evidence of wine in the Near East has been found, in Georgia.

Enlarge / The first vineyards probably weren’t this orderly and certainly lacked the barn.

PIiny the Elder knew that truth comes out in it. Aeschylus called it the mirror of the mind. Robert Louis Stevenson said it was bottled poetry. Mark Twain compared the books of great geniuses to it. It is no wonder that wine—which perfectly complements food, inhibits inhibitions, and alters perceptions—has been inseparable from civilization from time immemorial. But when, exactly, “immemorial” started is still being investigated.

The absolute earliest confirmation of grape wine production, at about 7000 BCE, actually comes from China. But wine production started in the Near East. Canaanites brought it to Egypt by 3000 BCE, and from there it eventually swept through Europe. The earliest evidence of Neolithic Near Eastern wine had been from 5400-5000 BCE in the northwestern Zagros mountains of Iran. Now, new evidence pushes the start date about five hundred years back and a thousand kilometers north, to 6000-5800 BCE in the South Caucasus.

Back in the 1960s, a pottery sherd (not a typo—it’s the word archaeologists use for shards, for some reason) from a dig near Tbilisi tested positive for tartaric acid. That’s the principal biomarker for wine, as it’s not present in most fruits but is the most abundant acid in grapes. But in the 1960s it was standard practice to wash sherds in hydrochloric acid, and, anyway, this sherd was found on the surface, so who knows what it was exposed to in the environment. Point is, this was not the most reliable of artifacts.

Excavations at the site were renewed, however, in 2012, giving researchers another shot at determining if Georgia is the birthplace of wine. A new study analyzed 18 new unwashed sherds along with soil samples collected nearby to control for modern environmental contamination. Tartaric acid was identified in eight of the pottery samples, and the levels were significantly higher than their corresponding soil samples.

The excavators didn’t find any grape pits, skins, or wood, but they did find some grape pollen at the site—and not on the surface, indicating that it is older. Twenty-two carbon dating analyses done at different times by different labs have confirmed that these sites date to the first half of the sixth millennium BCE.

Presumably, these Neolithic vintners did not have the grasp of microbial anaerobic respiration and the fermentation that results. When they left their grape juice out and ended up with wine, it must have seemed magical indeed. (It’s no surprise people created sacraments around it.)

This work pushed the origins of viniculture back half a millennium, but the Near East is littered with Neolithic sites yet to be excavated. Many of them are from the five thousand years predating this Georgian site, a period after crops had been domesticated and permanent settlements had been established but before pottery had been invented. So perhaps the pertinent question is not: who made the first wine? Instead, it may be: which came first—the wine or the jug to hold it?

PNAS, 2017. DOI: 10.1073/pnas..1714728114 (About DOIs).

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