As if making the oldest known leather shoe wasn't enough, a prehistoric people in what's now Armenia also built the world's oldest known winery, a new study says.
Undertaken at a burial site, their winemaking may have been dedicated to the dead—and it likely required the removal of any fancy footwear.
Near the village of Areni, in the same cave where a stunningly preserved, 5,500-year-old leather moccasin was recently found, archaeologists have unearthed a wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storage vessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins, and seeds, the study says.
"This is the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production," said archaeologist Gregory Areshian of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
"For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years," he said. (Related: "First Wine? Archaeologist Traces Drink to Stone Age.")
The prehistoric winemaking equipment was first detected in 2007, when excavations co-directed by Areshian and Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan began at the Areni-1 cave complex.
In September 2010 archaeologists completed excavations of a large, 2-foot-deep (60-centimeter-deep) vat buried next to a shallow, 3.5-foot-long (1-meter-long) basin made of hard-packed clay with elevated edges.
The installation suggests the Copper Age vintners pressed their wine the old-fashioned way, using their feet, Areshian said.
Juice from the trampled grapes drained into the vat, where it was left to ferment, he explained.
The wine was then stored in jars—the cool, dry conditions of the cave would have made a perfect wine cellar, according to Areshian, who co-authored the new study, published Tuesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
(Related pictures: "Before and After: Wine-Cult Cave Art Restored in Petra.")
To test whether the vat and jars in the Armenian cave had held wine, the team chemically analyzed pottery shards—which had been radiocarbon-dated to between 4100 B.C. and 4000 B.C.—for telltale residues.
The chemical tests revealed traces of malvidin, the plant pigment largely responsible for red wine's color.
"Malvidin is the best chemical indicator of the presence of wine we know of so far," Areshian said.
Ancient-wine expert Patrick E. McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, agrees the evidence argues convincingly for a winemaking facility.
One thing that would make the claim a bit stronger, though, said McGovern, who wasn't involved in the study, is the presence of tartaric acid, another chemical indicator of grapes. Malvidin, he said, might have come from other local fruits, such as pomegranates.
Combined with the malvidin and radiocarbon evidence, traces of tartaric acid "would then substantiate that the facility is the earliest yet found," he said.
"Later, we know that small treading vats for stomping out the grapes and running the juice into underground jars are used all over the Near East and throughout the Mediterranean," he added.
(Related: "Ancient Christian 'Holy Wine' Factory Found in Egypt.")
Winery Discovery Backed Up by DNA?
McGovern called the discovery "important and unique, because it indicates large-scale wine production, which would imply, I think, that the grape had already been domesticated."
As domesticated vines yield much more fruit than wild varieties, larger facilities would have been needed to process the grapes.
McGovern has uncovered chemical and archaeological evidence of wine, but not of a winery, in northern Iran dating back some 7,000 years—around a thousand years earlier than the new find.
But the apparent discovery that winemaking using domesticated grapevines emerged in what's now Armenia appears to dovetail with previous DNA studies of cultivated grape varieties, McGovern said. Those studies had pointed to the mountains of Armenia, Georgia, and neighboring countries as the birthplace of viticulture.
McGovern—whose book Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages traces the origins of wine—said the Areni grape perhaps produced a taste similar to that of ancient Georgian varieties that appear to be ancestors of the Pinot Noir grape, which results in a dry red.
To preserve the wine, however, tree resin would probably have been added, he speculated, so the end result may actually have been more like a Greek retsina, which is still made with tree resin.
In studying ancient alcohol, he added, "our chemical analyses have shown tree resin in many wine samples."
Ancient Drinking Rituals
While the identities of the ancient, moccasin-clad wine quaffers remain a mystery, their drinking culture likely involved ceremonies in honor of the dead, UCLA's Areshian believes.
"Twenty burials have been identified around the wine-pressing installation. There was a cemetery, and the wine production in the cave was related to this ritualistic aspect," Areshian speculated.
Significantly, drinking cups have been found inside and around the graves.
McGovern, the ancient-wine expert, said later examples of ancient alcohol-related funerary rituals have been found throughout the world.
In ancient Egypt, for example, "you have illustrations inside the tombs showing how many jars of beer and wine from the Nile Delta are to be provided to the dead," McGovern said. (Also see "Scorpion King's Wines—Egypt's Oldest—Spiked With Meds.")
"I guess a cave is secluded, so it's good for a cemetery, but it's also good for making wine," he added. "And then you have the wine right there, so you can keep the ancestors happy."
Future work planned at Areni will further investigate links between the burials and winemaking, study leader Areshian said.
Winemaking as Revolution
The discovery is important, the study team says, because winemaking is seen as a significant social and technological innovation among prehistoric societies.
Vine growing, for instance, heralded the emergence of new, sophisticated forms of agriculture, Areshian said.
"They had to learn and understand the cycles of growth of the plant," he said. "They had to understand how much water was needed, how to prevent fungi from damaging the harvest, and how to deal with flies that live on the grapes.
"The site gives us a new insight into the earliest phase of horticulture—how they grew the first orchards and vineyards," he added.
University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Naomi Miller commented that "from a nutritional and culinary perspective, wine expands the food supply by harnessing the otherwise sour and unpalatable wild grape.
"From a social perspective, for good and ill," Miller said, "alcoholic beverages change the way we interact with each other in society."
The ancient-winery study was led by UCLA's Hans Barnard and partially funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)