First Wine? Archaeologist Traces Drink to Stone Age

William Cocke
for National Geographic News
July 21, 2004

Wine snobs might shudder at the thought, but the first wine-tasting may have occurred when Paleolithic humans slurped the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes from animal-skin pouches or crude wooden bowls.

The idea of winemaking may have occurred to our alert and resourceful ancestors when they observed birds gorging themselves silly on fermented fruit and decided to see what the buzz was all about.

"The whole process is sort of magical," said Patrick McGovern, an expert on the origins of ancient wine and a leader in the emerging field of biomolecular archaeology. "You could even call [fermentation] the first biotechnology," said McGovern, who is based at Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania.

Combining archaeology with chemical and molecular analysis, McGovern has carved a niche for himself as an expert in ancient organics—particularly wine. He has already pushed our knowledge of vinicultural history back to Neolithic times (the late Stone Age). Now McGovern is searching in eastern Turkey for the origins of grape domestication.

The scientist lacks the physical evidence to prove his hypothesis that hunter-gatherers made what he calls "Stone Age beaujolais nouveau." But he has shown, through a combination of archaeological sleuthing and chemical analysis, that the history of wine extends to the Neolithic period (8,500-4,000 B.C.) and the first glimmerings of civilization.

Gods and Grapes

The wild Eurasian grapevine (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) is found from Spain to Central Asia. Cultivars, or varieties bred from the vine, account for nearly all of the wine produced today.

McGovern is attempting to establish the origin of the earliest Neolithic viniculture—where grapevines were cultivated and winemaking developed. By comparing DNA from the wild grape with that of modern cultivars, McGovern and his colleagues hope to pinpoint the origin of domestication.

The scientist recently returned from an expedition to Turkey's Taurus Mountains near the headwaters of the Tigris River. There, he combed rugged river valleys in search of wild grapevines untouched by modern cultivation methods. McGovern was joined by José Vouillamoz, from Italy's Istituto Agrario di San Michele all'Adige in Trento, and Ali Ergül, from Turkey's Ankara University.

"We're looking in eastern Turkey, because that's where other plants were domesticated," McGovern said in a telephone interview before his trip. "We're going out there to collect wild grapevines with local cultivars, so we can see what the relationship is and maybe make a case that this is where the first domestication occurred."

One dramatic setting for the researchers' grapevine collecting was a deeply cut ravine below the site known as Nemrut Daghi. "A first-century B.C. ruler, Antiochus I Epiphanes, had statues of himself in the company of the gods hewn out of limestone on a mountaintop at about 7,000 feet [2,130 meters]," McGovern said.

The remote area includes the important Neolithic site of Çayönü. From this and other archaeological digs, McGovern collected pottery and stone fragments to test for ancient organic material—perhaps the residue of long-evaporated, locally produced wine.

Continued on Next Page >>


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