Fountainhead of the Fermented Grape: Wine’s Ancient Origins

Archaeology, Pre-history, Regional History, Social History

Where did the story of wine and wine-making begin? As with many things whose beginnings are shrouded in the mystery of ancient and even pre-historic times, it is very hard to pinpoint a one hundred percent, definitive answer to this question. The evidence for when and where humans might have first cultivated Vitis vinifera va. sylvestris (the wild grape fruit)❈ lies in the realm of archaeology.

Today’s Transcaucasian republics – physical map
The timeline for the first experiments with wine-making, thanks to a wealth of archaeological evidence, puts it in the pre-recorded history stage of humanity, more precisely in the Neolithic Era (in Eurasia this was, very roughly, from 9,000 to 4,000 BCE). The consensus view has traditionally tended to be that the rudiments of viticulture can be located in the area around Mesopotamia and the Caspian Sea.

The Fertile Crescent: home of Ur-winemakers
Transcaucasia (the Caucasus), that relatively narrow strip of multi-ethnic lands separating the Black Sea from the Caspian, stretching south to include the northern parts of Turkey and Iran, has perhaps the best claim to the honour. Archaeologists have discovered early signs of wine activity and implements in southern Georgia, north-western Azerbaijan, and northern Armenia, suggesting that “Stone Age people took advantage of a temperate climate and availability of wild fruit species to experiment with cultivating grapes”[1].

Wine expert Caroline Gilby identifies three basic pre-conditions for successful wine-making in the Neolithic era, (i) a stable human population settled in the one place for some time, (ii) invention of pottery/clay vessels for storage✜, and (iii) existence of wild grapevines (plus a self-fertile plant to cross-pollinate with). Transcaucasia fits the bill – plant cultivation for most of the major agricultural crops began in the Middle East region around 10,000 years ago. Within the greater Caucasus, Georgia for which wine is a national obsession has 500 distinct varieties of the vine, whilst Turkey and Armenia have around 600 and 200 respectively[2].

Not to be outdone, Iran itself has a claim worthy of contention for longevity of vine production. In the mid 1990’s evidence of mey (Persian: wine), dating to about 5,400 BCE, was found in excavated jars at the Hajji Firuz Tepe site in the Zagros Mountains of north-western Iran. What was especially significant about this location was that it also contained evidence of the preservation of wine (in the form of a resin from the local terebinth tree)[3].

Armenia: site of oldest known vineyard
In recent years archaeologists discovered and excavated the Areni-1 Cave – the earliest known site of wine production (pre-historic “wine-making on an industrial scale” not hitherto unearthed)[4]. Items found at the vineyard at Vayots Dzor included a wine-press, fermentation vats, jars and cups[5]. The clay receptacles with their wine traces were radiocarbon-dated after being chemical analysed at between 4100 BCE and 4000 BCE. A side-effect of the recent vinaceous archaeological discoveries has been squabbling among the various Transcasusian states as to who were the first wine-makers[6].

Egyptian winery, 2nd millennium BCE
Mediterranean wine culture
Transcaucasian wine production and consumption clearly predates those from the Mediterranean region. Egypt is closest in time to the northern Eurasian area, its oldest traces of wine (yrp or irep), found inside the Tomb of the Scorpion King (Abydos, Upper Egypt), is about 5,000-years-old. Interestingly they were found to be spiked with natural medicines (effectively herbal wine). These medicinal additives were later adopted by Greek and Roman winemakers who followed the Egyptian practice[7]. The ancient Egyptians, who had a preference for red wine, were the first to depict wine and wine-making in their hieroglyphics.

Roman wine jars – great & small
In Grecian Macedonia fragments of crockery and assorted pottery with wine traces have been found dating back to around 4,500 BCE. Evidence of wine cultivation – dating from the mid-3rd century BCE – was also found on the Greek island of Crete. For ancient Romans wine was the drink de jour … initially Roman attempts at the craft of wine-making were derivative of the established Greek (and Etruscan) methods of viticulture but the Romans later drew on the ample supply of indigenous vines in southern Italy to produce their own varieties. With the ever widening reach of Roman imperial expansion – through war, trade and settlements – the Romans spread wine consumption and viticulture to the countries and regions it conquered (especially France, Germany, Spain and Portugal)[8].

Vino in eastern Asia: China’s early wine origins
In the mid 2000s China emerged as a candidate for the world’s earliest consumers of wine. An international team of archaeologists (Chinese, American and German) dug up an early Neolithic village (Jiahu) in Henan Province, unearthing pottery with traces of “wine-like drinks”(sic) (a fermented mixture comprising rice, honey and hawthorn fruit and grape). The beverage has been dated somewhere between the year 7,000 BCE and 5,500-6,000 BCE[9].

Whether China has the bragging rights to being the earliest consumer of wine (and perhaps the first centre of wine production), or Transcaucus does, one point remains clear: the interest and active, on-going work of archaeologists in this field, ensures that ownership of the title has a fluidity to it. Yet more candidates for the world’s earliest pioneers of viticulture are likely to be unearthed in the future.

∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸
❈ the European grape-vine common to western Eurasia – between the Mediterranean and Caspian seas
✜ ceramic containers were invented around 20,000 years ago

[1] T de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, (2010). For instance, discoveries in the 1960s of domesticated grape pips in N/W Azerbaijan have been dated at around 6,000 BCE; in Shulaveri, Georgia, University of Pennsylvania academic Patrick McGovern found wine residues in the shards of 8,000-year-old ceramic vessels, A Friedrich, ‘Georgia’s Vintners Thrist for the Past’, The Washington Post, 22-Feb-2004
[2] C Gilby, ‘The Birthplace of Wine?’, Decanter, (Jan. 2012), www.winesofturkey.org. The domesticated form of the grape has hermaphrodite flowers which self-pollinate, KK Hurst, ‘Wine and its Origins – The Archaeology and History of Wine Making’, (About Education), www.archaeology.about.com
[3] ibid.; M Berkowitz, ‘World’s Earliest Wine’, (Newsbriefs) Archaeology Archive, 49(5) Sep/Oct 1996, www.archaeologicalarchive.org/9609/newsbriefs/charlesfort.html
[4] Dig project co-director Boris Gasparyan, cited in Gilroy, op.cit.
[5] ‘History of Wine’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[6] Gilroy, loc.cit.
[7] the Scorpion I wine did not emanate from a local production point, but was imported to the Nile from the Levant, B Handwerk, ‘Scorpion King’s Wines — Egypt’s Oldest — Spiked with Meds’, National Geographic News, 13-Apr-2009, www.news.nationalgeographic.com; J Butler & R Heskett,
Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, (2012)
[8] ‘Ancient Rome and wine’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[9] ‘Chinese People were Drinking Wine 9,000 Years Ago’, (Phys Org) 19-Dec-2004, www.phys.org