The Washington Post

Study: Wine grapes domesticat­ed 11,000 years ago

Scientists from 17 nations collaborat­ed on massive genetic research project


When the last Ice Age ended and the glaciers retreated, roughly 11,000 years ago, something appears to have changed among the wild grapevines of Asia. They became domesticat­ed. The first farmers on Earth began cultivatin­g the best vines with the biggest, juiciest grapes.

Wine, and civilizati­on, soon followed.

That’s the implicatio­n of a major research study, published Thursday in the journal Science, from a sprawling collaborat­ion of scientists from 17 nations. The team looked at genomes from thousands of grapevines gathered from across the Eurasian land mass to trace the plant’s long and winding journey from the Stone Age to your neighborho­od wine bar.

In the process, researcher­s came across previously undocument­ed cultivars growing in old vineyards, a find that allowed the discoverer­s to name these overlooked or forgotten grape varieties.

The new work reinforces archaeolog­ical evidence that the developmen­t of agricultur­e was accompanie­d by abundant fermented beverages.

“The grapevine was probably the first fruit crop domesticat­ed by humans,” senior author Wei Chen, an evolutiona­ry biologist at Yunnan Agricultur­al University, said in a media briefing Thursday.

The research carried a geopolitic­al message as well, showing scientific cooperatio­n at its best amid turbulent times.

“I think our collaborat­ion shows that we can achieve big things, just like the ancient people that traded grapes across borders,” Chen said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Chen said that scientists in many nations had long explored when people began tinkering with wild grapevines to take advantage of the ones that produced the best fruit. But earlier studies had been done in isolation and often contradict­ed one another on the difficult question. Some estimates put domesticat­ion as far back as 15,000 years ago, well in advance of the developmen­t of agricultur­e.

Chen persuaded colleagues from across Europe and Asia to collaborat­e, creating a genomic database from vines across a vast region, from the Iberian Peninsula to Japan.

“We joined forces and looked into what’s really going on with grape evolution and grapevine domesticat­ion,” Chen said.

There are many species of grapevines, but only one, Vitis vinifera, supplies the wine that is recommende­d by a sommelier. The familiar grapes that segment the wine market — merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir — are varietals of that species.

“We care about this grape so much we gave each variety a specific name,” Chen said. “We don’t do it for, like, wheat or barley.”

There are still wild grapes with an ancient lineage, of the subspecies sylvestris. They tend to produce small grapes, few in number and bitter, but they’re valuable to modern society because they contain genes that offer resistance to diseases and climate change, said Peter Nick, a co-author of the new study and a plant biologist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

“These wild grapes and these very old varieties still have these resilience genes, which we will need to render the grape resistance against the challenge of climate change,” Nick said.

Research into grape domesticat­ion has long been dominated by archaeolog­ists, who tell the story of that era through seeds and traces of wine in broken pottery. The people of prehistory had not yet invented writing, so the wine drinkers of 10 millennia ago did not leave behind vintage ratings or recommenda­tions for which wine would pair nicely with roasted goat.

Genomic analysis represents a relatively new technique for penetratin­g the fog of prehistory — a period when the postglacia­l climate warmed, humans increased in number and cultures flourished.

Domesticat­ed grapes are hermaphrod­itic and can fertilize themselves. The analysis of modern plants and their genetic history showed a change in the gene flow about 11,000 years ago that signaled a selection by early farmers for hermaphrod­itic grapevines.

But the new report has come up with a surprising twist on the story: Domesticat­ion happened twice, on different lineages of the wild grapes.

Both events occurred around the same time, one in the Caucasus region that includes modernday Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and one in western Asia. The two regions are more than 600 miles apart. Chen noted that human migration, or cultural exchanges, could explain the two separate domesticat­ions. In other words, good ideas get around.

The study authors believe that the Caucasus line of grapevines gave rise to the ones selected for their winemaking potential, while the west Asian lineage was initially selected as a food source — table grapes. Surprising­ly, those table grapes were then intermixed with wild grapes to create the wine-producing grapes found across much of western Asia and Europe, including the famous wine regions along the Mediterran­ean.

The analysis can’t answer the question of when people started fermenting grapes routinely to create wine, Nick said. But starting about 11,000 years ago, he said, “people deliberate­ly were growing vines, and not just collecting the berries in the forest.”

Archaeolog­ical evidence places the earliest-known winemaking about 8,000 years ago in what is now Georgia, in the Caucasus. And grapevine varieties were clearly carried great distances, eventually leading to the profusion of wine varieties enjoyed by modern oenophiles.

“It was one of the first globally traded goods. It’s justified to say that the domesticat­ion of grapevines was really one of the driving forces of civilizati­on,” Nick said.

But Patrick Mcgovern, a biomolecul­ar archaeolog­ist at the University of Pennsylvan­ia Museum and author of the book “Ancient Wine,” said in an email that the new research falls short of proving that people had domesticat­ed grapevines 11,000 years ago.

“Utilizing and even ‘cultivatin­g’ wild grapes for food and drink is one thing, but actually ‘domesticat­ing’ the grape is something altogether different and much more difficult,” Mcgovern said in an email. “For that, convincing archaeolog­ical, archaeobot­anical, and/or chemical evidence is needed.”

He said the domesticat­ion of grapevines requires extensive horticultu­ral skill.

“The combinatio­n of technologi­cal hurdles to be overcome in ‘domesticat­ing’ the grapevine or any fruit plant may explain why of all the many grape species that grow worldwide … only the Eurasian grapevine ( Vitis vinifera), on current evidence, was domesticat­ed in antiquity,” he said.

 ?? Zhenchang Liang/science ?? A study suggests that domesticat­ion of wine grapes happened twice, independen­tly, in the Caucasus region and western Asia.
Zhenchang Liang/science A study suggests that domesticat­ion of wine grapes happened twice, independen­tly, in the Caucasus region and western Asia.

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