This remarkable find deserves a toast: People were fermenting grapes into wine about 8,000 years ago in what is now the Republic of Georgia, say scientists who found what's now considered the oldest known winemaking site on record.
Archaeologists found ceramic jars that showed evidence of winemaking during an excavation of two Neolithic sites called Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, which are in the South Caucasus, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.
Previously, the oldest evidence of winemaking was found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, and dated to between 5500 B.C. and 5000 B.C. The new discovery, dated to 6000 B.C., shows that people were enjoying the alcoholic drink a good 600 to 1,000 years longer than formerly thought, the researchers said. [Raise Your Glass: 10 Intoxicating Beer Facts]
During the excavation in Georgia, researchers uncovered fragments of ceramic jars. While analyzing the chemical residue on shards from eight large jars, the scientists found tartaric acid, a fingerprint compound of grapes and wine.
"We believe this is the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine," study co-researcher Stephen Batiuk, a senior research associate in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations and the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto, said in a statement.
During the Neolithic period, people began settling into permanent villages, farming crops, domesticating animals, making polished stone tools and developing crafts, such as pottery and woven goods. These new technologies likely helped ancient people with winemaking, the researchers said.
"Pottery, which was ideal for processing, serving and storing fermented beverages, was invented in this period together with many advances in art, technology and cuisine," Batiuk said.
Moreover, there are more than 10,000 varieties of table and wine grapes worldwide, and "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," Batiuk said.
A number of analyses — including archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon — indicate that the Eurasian grape known as Vitis vinifera was abundant at the two Neolithic sites. This grape likely had ideal growing conditions in these Neolithic villages, which had conditions close to those of the modern wine-producing regions of Italy and France, the researchers said.
It's no surprise that once ancient farmers domesticated the grape, wine culture followed, Batiuk added. These ancient societies were awash in wine, which permeated nearly every aspect of life, including medical treatments, special celebrations and everyday meals.
"As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economics and society throughout the ancient Near East," Batiuk said.
Viniculture is complex; it includes domestication, propagation, selection of desirable traits, wine presses, suitable containers and proper closures (such as modern-day corks), the researchers wrote in the study, which was published online today (Nov. 13) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And now, people living in the South Caucasus have reason to be proud of the history within their region.
"The Eurasian grapevine that now accounts for 99.9 percent of wine made in the world today has its roots in Caucasia," Batiuk said.
Original article on Live Science.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.