On a small rise less than 20 miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia, a clutch of round, mud-brick houses rises from a green, fertile river valley. The mound is called Gadachrili Gora, and the Stone Age farmers who lived here 8,000 years ago were grape lovers: Their rough pottery is decorated with bunches of the fruit, and analysis of pollen from the site suggests the wooded hillsides nearby were once decked with grapevines.
In a paper published today in the journal PNAS, an international team of archaeologists has conclusively shown what all those grapes were for. The people living at Gadachrili Gora and a nearby village were the world’s earliest known vintners—producing wine on a large scale as early as 6,000 B.C., a time when prehistoric humans were still reliant on stone and bone tools.
Excavating the overlapping circular houses at the site, the team found broken pottery, including the rounded bases of large jars, embedded in the floors of the village houses. More samples were found at Shulaveri Gora, another Stone Age village site a mile or so from Gadachrili that was partially excavated in the 1960s. (See “Ghost of the Vine” for more about the search for the roots of winemaking.)
When the samples were analyzed by University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Patrick McGovern, he found tartaric acid, a chemical “fingerprint” that shows wine residues were present in fragments of pottery from both sites.
Combined with the grape decorations on the outside of the jars, ample grape pollen in the site’s fine soil, and radiocarbon dates from 5,800 B.C. to 6,000 B.C., the chemical analysis indicates the people at Gadachrili Gora were the world’s earliest winemakers. (Tipplers at a Chinese site called Jiahu were making fermented beverages from a mixture of grains and wild fruit a thousand years earlier.)
Because they didn’t find many grape seeds or stems preserved in the village’s soil, archaeologists think the wine was made in the nearby hills, close to where the grapes were grown.
“They were pressing it in cooler environments, fermenting it, and then pouring it into smaller jugs and transporting it to the villages when it was ready to drink,” says University of Toronto archaeologist Stephen Batiuk, who co-directed the joint expedition alongside archaeologist Mindia Jalabdze of the Georgian National Museum.
In later periods, winemakers used pine resin or herbs to prevent wine from spoiling or cover up unpleasant tastes, the same way modern wine producers use sulfites. McGovern’s chemical analysis didn’t find any such residues, suggesting that these were early winemaking experiments – and that the wine was a seasonal drink, produced and consumed before it had a chance to turn vinegary. “They don’t seem to have put tree resin with it, making it the first pure wine,” McGovern says. “Maybe they hadn’t yet discovered that tree resins were helpful.”
The evidence adds a new wrinkle to our understanding of the Neolithic, a pivotal period when humans were first learning to farm, settling down and domesticating crops and animals. The gradual process, known as the Neolithic Revolution, began around 10,000 B.C. in Anatolia, a few hundred miles west of Gadachrili.
It’s increasingly clear that it didn’t take long for people to turn their thoughts to alcohol: Just a few thousand years after the first wild grasses were domesticated, the people at Gadachrili had not only learned the art of fermentation but were apparently improving, breeding, and harvesting vitis vinifera, the European grape. “They’re working out horticultural methods, how you transplant it, how you produce it,” McGovern says. “It shows just how inventive the human species is.”
Georgia, nestled in the Caucasus mountains not far from where the Neolithic Revolution began, is still wine-crazy 8,000 year later. It has more than 500 local grape varieties, a sign that people have been breeding and growing grapes here for a long time. Even in bustling downtown Tbilisi, grapevines cling to crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks.
“The region’s wine culture has deep historical roots,” says David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum. “Large jars similar to the Neolithic vessels are still used to make wine in Georgia today.”
Stanford University archaeologist Patrick Hunt says the results show that Stone Age people lived complex, rich lives, with interests and concerns we’d be familiar with today. “Wine fermentation isn’t a survival necessity. It shows that human beings back then were about more than utilitarian activity,” says Hunt. “There’s far greater sophistication even in the transitional Neolithic than we had any clue about.”
If the archaeologists and other specialists can identify the modern variety of grape closest to what was growing near the Gadachrili village, they hope to plant an experimental vineyard nearby to learn more about how prehistoric winemaking might have worked. And Batiuk says they still haven’t reached the lowest, oldest layers of the site. “We might be able to push it back even further,” he says. “We’re filling out the story of wine, this liquid that’s so pivotal to so many cultures—to western civilization, really.”