8,000-year-old pottery fragments from two sites in the Republic of Georgia, South Caucasus, have revealed the earliest biomolecular archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence of grape wine and winemaking. The discovery is described in a paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The fragments of eight large ceramic jars were found at two Neolithic sites called Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora in the province of Kvemo (Lower) Kartli, about 50 km (30 miles) south of the modern capital of Tbilisi.
Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora are contemporaneous, close to the Kura River, and belong to the so-called Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture, a cultural region recognized by archaeologists that extends southeast downriver to Shomutepe and other sites in Azerbaijan and south into the Armenian highlands.
Both sites were established as small villages during the early Neolithic period (6000-5000 BC).
The pottery fragments were analyzed by University of Pennsylvania researchers to ascertain the nature of the residue preserved inside for several millennia.
Using the most exacting chemical technique available — tandem liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry-mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS) — the fragments were shown to contain the finger-print compound for grape and wine (tartaric acid) and three associated organic acids (malic, succinic, and citric).
Additional analyses by Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry of the pottery were less informative, but gave results consistent with those by LC-MS-MS.
A notable finding was the absence of a tree resin, which was widely used in the ancient Near East to prevent wine going to vinegar.
Moreover, no other ingredients (e.g., medicinal herbs, honey, and cereals) were mixed with the wine, which was to become a common later practice.
“The quantity of wine in the Georgian jars — the most common pottery shape at the sites containing upwards of 300 liters (80 gallons) each — strongly implies that the grapevine had already been domesticated and was being cloned and transplanted by horticultural techniques,” said lead author Dr. Patrick McGovern, Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the Penn Museum.
“The combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic, and radiocarbon data demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine (Vitis vinifera) was abundant at the Georgian sites and growing under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium vinicultural regions in Italy and southern France today.”
“We believe this is the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine,” said co-author Dr. Stephen Batiuk, a senior research associate in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations and the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto.
“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 for wine alone, suggesting that grapes have been domesticated and cross-breeding in the region for a very long time.”
The earliest previously known chemical evidence of wine dated to 5400-5000 BC and was from the site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.
Patrick McGovern et al. Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus. PNAS, published online November 13, 2017; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1714728114