Ear­li­est ev­i­dence of wine­mak­ing found

Cana­di­ans among re­searchers

Lethbridge Herald - - HEADLINE NEWS ✦ CANADA & BEYOND - Daniela Ger­mano

Arche­ol­o­gists from Canada are among a team of re­searchers who say they’ve un­earthed the ear­li­est ev­i­dence of wine­mak­ing in the world, dat­ing the ori­gin of the prac­tice back hun­dreds of years ear­lier than pre­vi­ously be­lieved.

The dis­cov­ery, re­ported in a study be­ing pub­lished this week in the journal Pro­ceed­ings of the Nat­u­ral Academy of Sciences, was made in the South Cau­ca­sus re­gion in Ge­or­gia, a coun­try on the bor­der of east­ern Europe and western Asia.

The ex­ca­va­tions on the project were con­ducted by a team from the Univer­sity of Toronto and the Ge­or­gian National Mu­seum as part of a larger re­search project in­ves­ti­gat­ing the emer­gence of vini­cul­ture in the re­gion. Re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia were in­volved in study­ing ma­te­ri­als re­cov­ered from the sites.

Pre­vi­ously, the ear­li­est known chem­i­cal ev­i­dence of wine made from grapes was dated to 5,400 to 5,000 BC in Iran, but the arche­ol­o­gists say they can now trace the prac­tice to about 6,000 BC in sites about 50 kilo­me­tres south of the Ge­or­gian cap­i­tal of Tbil­isi.

“What this shows is that (wine­mak­ing) was done in small scale in lit­tle vil­lages and in the Ne­olithic pe­riod — and it’s a pe­riod when we’re ex­per­i­ment­ing with agri­cul­ture,” said Stephen Batiuk, a se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Ar­chae­ol­ogy Cen­tre, who coau­thored the study.

The Ne­olithic pe­riod is char­ac­ter­ized by ac­tiv­i­ties that in­clude the be­gin­ning of farm­ing, do­mes­ti­cat­ing an­i­mals and de­vel­op­ing crafts such as pottery and weav­ing, and the early ev­i­dence of wine­mak­ing demon­strates fur­ther “hu­man in­ge­nu­ity” at the time, Batiuk said.

Frag­ments from ce­ramic jars re­cov­ered from the ex­ca­vated sites were col­lected and anaylzed by sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia to de­ter­mine that the residue pre­served in­side came from grapes used to make wine.

“U of T’s part is that we’ve been work­ing with the Ge­or­gians on the ex­ca­va­tions and what we did was, first of all, in­creased the area of ex­ca­va­tion, changed the ex­ca­va­tion strate­gies and brought in new method­olo­gies,” Batiuk ex­plained, not­ing that the Cana­dian team joined the Ge­or­gian re­searchers about two years ago.

“It was a way of mak­ing sure that the sam­ples that we would even­tu­ally get and send to (the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia) for the anal­y­sis would be good, clean sam­ples from good con­text that we could trace and date prop­erly.”

Arche­ol­o­gists found wide jars with nar­row bases, which Batiuk said could mean that the wine was ei­ther par­tially buried or fully buried in the ground.

“This is im­por­tant be­cause this is the way tra­di­tional wine is made in Ge­or­gia,” he said. “So this would sug­gest per­haps the tech­nol­ogy had de­vel­oped back then.”

The ab­sence of charred grape seeds, com­monly found at an­cient wine­mak­ing sites, re­main a mys­tery for the arche­ol­o­gists though, the study says. It also means they are un­able to de­ter­mine the va­ri­ety of grapes used in the wine.

“Seeds by them­selves, they are or­ganic, so they will dis­ap­pear in the arche­o­log­i­cal record,” Batiuk said. “The ones that are pre­served for us, es­pe­cially go­ing all the way back to the Ne­olithic, these will be charred and, once they are turned into char­coal, they can sur­vive much bet­ter.

“You could eas­ily just say, ‘well it’s be­cause they never ac­tu­ally ex­posed them to fire, so that’s why we don’t have any of them,’ but that is kind of a tough ar­gu­ment to make be­cause there is al­ways ac­ci­den­tal fir­ing of these things,” he added. “That is es­pe­cially if you are press­ing the grapes out af­ter­ward ... fre­quently enough peo­ple will toss them out in the fire and that will usu­ally pre­serve some of the seeds.”

Batiuk said the wine­mak­ing could have started where the grapes were grown, with the prod­uct then trans­ported to vil­lages for the fer­ment­ing process. He sus­pected the grapes could have grown in the wild in the nearby hill­sides, an area he said his team plans to ex­ca­vate next year.

He noted that the fu­ture ex­ca­va­tion may yield new ev­i­dence of wine­mak­ing in the hill­sides that could pre­date the cur­rent study.

“The hope then is as we move into the dif­fer­ent time pe­ri­ods — later into the Ne­olithic and into the Chal­col­ithic — we can maybe start to see more of the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and find the miss­ing link be­tween the sites in Ge­or­gia and the sites in Iran.”

The method­ol­ogy for iden­ti­fy­ing wine residues in an­cient pottery was ini­tially de­vel­oped and tested on a ves­sel found in Iran 40 years ago by a team from the Royal On­tario Mu­seum led by Univer­sity of Toronto re­searcher T. Cuyler Young — one of Batiuk’s for­mer pro­fes­sors. It was also the old­est-known chem­i­cal ev­i­dence of wine un­til the re­cent dis­cov­ery in Ge­or­gia.

“It’s an amaz­ing re­sult af­ter only two years of work,” Batiuk said of the lat­est re­search. “The idea of ac­tu­ally bring­ing it full cir­cle back to my orig­i­nal work with Cuyler makes it ex­tra special.”

Cana­dian Press photo

A jar from an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site in Ge­or­gia, where re­searchers found the ear­li­est ev­i­dence of wine­mak­ing in the world, is shown in this un­dated hand­out photo. Arche­ol­o­gists be­lieve these jars were buried in the ground dur­ing the fer­men­ta­tion process — a prac­tice still done in Ge­or­gia to­day.

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