Wine production in the Early Neolithic South Caucasus

The earliest biomolecular archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence for grape wine and viniculture from the Near East, ca. 6,000–5,800 BC during the early Neolithic Period, was obtained by applying state-of-the-art archaeological, archaeobotanical, climatic, and chemical methods to newly excavated materials from two sites in Georgia in the South Caucasus. Wine is central to civilization as we know it in the West. As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economies, and society in the ancient Near East. This wine culture subsequently spread around the globe. Viniculture illustrates human ingenuity in developing horticultural and winemaking techniques, such as domestication, propagation, selection of desirable traits, wine presses, suitable containers and closures, and so on.


Following the last Ice Age, the Neolithic period in the Near East (ca. 10,000–4,500 BC) was a hotbed of experimentation, especially in the mountainous region extending west to east from the Taurus Mountains of southeastern Anatolia through the South Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia to the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran.

As the climate moderated and precipitation levels increased, especially between ca. 6,200–4,200 BC, humans established year-round settlements. Permanent habitation allowed for a host of recently domesticated plants—including the “founder crops” of barley, einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, chickpea, pea, lentil, flax, and bitter vetch—to be efficiently raised, harvested, and stored. These developments were crucial in jump-starting the millennia-long upheaval and changes in human subsistence and culture known as the “Neolithic revolution”.

Sedentary life, made possible by new, assured plant resources, was also accompanied by advances in the arts and crafts, such as architecture, weaving, dyeing, stone working, and woodworking. The invention of fired clay (pottery) containers sometime during the early seventh millennium BC had profound implications for processing, serving, and storing food and drink.

Human exploitation and cultivation of plants was not confined to staple cereals and legumes during the Neolithic. Fruits, nuts, tubers, herbs, and tree products are well-attested at Neolithic sites throughout the larger region. Among the fruit species, the wild Eurasian grape (Vitis vinifera sp. sylvestris) stands out, because its domestication as V. vinifera sp. vinifera became the basis of a widespread “wine culture” throughout the Near East and Egypt, which later spread to east Asia and across the Mediterranean to Europe, and then later to the New World. Today, there are some 8,000–10,000 domesticated cultivars of wine, raisin, and table grapes, with a range of colors from black to red to white. These cultivars owe their origins to human selection and accidental crosses or introgression between the incoming domesticated vine and native wild vines. These varieties account for 99.9% of the world’s wine production and include famous Western European cultivars such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Chardonnay.

The Near Eastern uplands have been described as the “world center” of the Eurasian grape, based on where the wild plant thrived and achieved its greatest genetic diversity. Indeed, DNA studies have shown that the wild vine of Anatolia is genetically closer to Western European cultivars than its wild counterpart there. Many cultivars in Georgia also have a close relationship to those in the West, including Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Syrah, and Chasselas.

Two important questions remain to be answered. Can more narrowly defined mountainous areas of greater Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent be delimited where the Eurasian grape first began to be made into wine and where it was subsequently domesticated? If so, when did these developments occur?

Archaeological Samples Chosen for Analysis

Our investigation, part of a larger Georgian project, sought to answer these questions by focusing on two archaeological sites that were occupied during the earliest Pottery Neolithic period in Georgia, the so-called “Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture” (SSC), dated to ca. 5,900–5,000 BC. The two sites are Shulaveris Gora, which gives its name to the period together with Shomutepe approximately 50 km downstream on the Kura River, and Gadachrili Gora. These sites are located within 2 km of one another in the province of Kvemo (Lower) Kartli, roughly 50 km south of the modern capital of Tbilisi.


The climate today is semiarid (steppe), with an annual rainfall of 350–550 mm and an average temperature of approximately 13 °C. Milder, better-watered conditions prevailed during the period ca. 5,900–5,000 BC. The Eurasian grapevine was well adapted to the ancient climate and remains well adapted to the modern climate.

As is our standard practice in biomolecular archaeological investigations, we strove to obtain the best-dated, best-provenienced, and best-preserved samples possible. These criteria were met to a varying extent in this study.

The opportunity to learn more and put the biomolecular archaeological investigation on a firmer, multidisciplinary foundation came when excavations at Gadachrili and Shulaveri were renewed in 2012–2013 and 2015–2016. Many more radiocarbon dates from well-defined occupational contexts were obtained; coupled with advances in calibration curves and statistical evaluation, this has allowed for construction of a much tighter chronology for the early Neolithic than had been proposed in earlier publications. Excavation and archaeobotanical techniques have also advanced since the 1960s, providing a finer-grained picture of how artifacts and ecofacts (i.e., plant and animal remains) were deposited and subjected to geological and chemical processes, as well as to human activity.

Pottery is the essential starting point of many biomolecular archaeological investigations. Barring the recovery of discernible physical residues of natural products constituting a food or drink, pottery has the advantage of being porous and an ionic (zeolite-like) material that absorbs liquids in particular and preserves them from environmental contamination for millennia until they are chemically extracted.

Based on considerations of good context and preservation, assured dating, special features such as decoration, and availability, 18 jars (6 body sherds and 12 base sherds) were sampled from the 2012–13 and 2014–2016 seasons at Gadachrili, along with one jar base sherd from the more limited 2016 season at Shulaveri. Bases were most desirable because materials settling out from a liquid were most likely to have accumulated on their interiors. Body sherds were less definitive, since they might come from the lower or upper part of a vessel. The sherds, which were not washed in the field, were accompanied by soil samples, collected from the same contexts but separated from the sherds, so as to provide a check on possible environmental contamination and background organic acid production by microorganisms.

The two putative “positive” samples from the 1960s excavations at Shulaveri (one base sherd and one body sherd) were included in our analytical corpus for reanalysis with our stricter protocols and more sensitive instrumentation.

Relative Chronology and Absolute Dating

Given our claim to have identified the earliest grape wine in the Near East (ca. 6,000–5,800 BC), it is crucial to put our findings on a solid chronological footing. Our primary reliance on short-lived botanical samples, well-defined archaeological contexts, and a Bayesian analysis of the composite data ensure that all of the analyzed samples from Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili Gora belong to the first half of the sixth millennium BC.

Chemical Results

After sample extraction, ancient organic compounds were identified by a combination of chemical techniques, including Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FT-IR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and liquid chromatography linear ion trap/orbitrap mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS).

The LC-MS-MS analyses proved to be most productive. Altogether, five base sherds from Gadachrili and three from Shulaveri were shown to be positive for tartaric acid and other organic acids (malic, succinic, and citric acid) found in grape/wine.

Archaeobotanical Results

If grapes were exploited to make wine or used as a food source at Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili Gora, as well as other SSC sites, then corroborative archaeobotanical evidence—seeds (pips), grapevine wood, even desiccated remains, such as skins—might be expected. Thus far, no grape pips, which have been confirmed to be Neolithic by radiocarbon dating, have been recovered from an SSC site.

The archaeobotanical database for grapes at SSC sites was expanded to include evidence of pollen, starches, and phytoliths by analyzing soils and artifacts from the 2016 Gadachrili and Shulaveri excavations. These data provide direct, contemporaneous evidence that grapes—whether wild or domesticated is not yet clear—were an important natural resource at these sites.

Based on microbotanical evidence, two reasonable, parsimonious inferences can be made: that grapevines were growing close to the Georgian sites, possibly inside the villages, and that their fruit was used as a food source. Combined with the chemical evidence for a grape product inside several jars, which would have served well as liquid containers, grape wine was likely one of the intended products, especially in light of the “wine culture” that emerged later in this area and throughout the Near East and Egypt.


Discussion and Conclusions

Previously, the earliest evidence for grape wine in the Near East was from the early Neolithic village of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northwestern Zagros Mountains of Iran, ca. 5,400–5,000 BC. Six jars, two of which were analyzed and showed the presence of tartaric acid/tartrate and a tree resin, had been embedded in the earthen floor along one wall of a “kitchen” of a Neolithic mudbrick house.

The Hajji Firuz jar shapes are also well suited for vinification and wine storage, implying that they are part of an earlier industrial tradition. Their narrow, high mouths could have been stoppered with clay (some possible examples with the same diameter as the mouths of the jars were found nearby) or covered.

Hajji Firuz is only approximately 500 km from Shulaveri and Gadachrili, and even closer to sites in Armenia and Azerbaijan. These sites also lie within the zone of the wild grape, as does the mountainous region of northern Mesopotamia and, farther afield, the Taurus Mountains of eastern Anatolia. Now that wine jars from as early as ca. 6,000 BC have been confirmed for Gadachrili and Shulaveri, preceding the Hajji Firuz jars by half a millennium, the question might be asked which region has priority in the discovery and dissemination of the “wine culture” and the domesticated grape. It is impossible to assign priority to any of these regions at this stage in the investigation; much more excavation and the collection of wild grapevines for DNA analysis are needed.

One disparity between the analyses of Hajji Firuz and Georgian jars is that the latter showed no signs of a tree resin or any other additive, according to the GC-MS analyses. Pine and terebinth saps were commonly added to wine throughout antiquity. They acted as antioxidants to keep the wine from going to vinegar, or barring that, to cover up offensive aromas and tastes. The tradition continues today only in Greece as retsina.

The earliest archaeological evidence for qvevri winemaking in Georgia is Iron Age in date, specifically the eighth to seventh centuries BC By Roman and Byzantine times, qvevris had become very popular throughout the Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds; for example, excellent examples have been unearthed at Pompeii. Strangely, however, no examples of large jars buried underground like those at Areni in Armenia have been found in Georgia for the 5,000-y period from the Neolithic period to Iron Age times.

The breakthrough came when numerous underground jars were found inside caves at Areni in a mountainous region of Armenia. Desiccated (uncarbonized) grapevine wood, dating to ca. 4,000 BC, together with pips and chemical evidence by LC-MS-MS of tartaric acid/tartrate and the red pigment malvidin, left no doubt that we now had partial evidence for the previously “empty” transitional period. The technology was ingenious: humans had laid out plaster floors for pressing the grapes and running the unfiltered juice into underground jars. Whether similar evidence will eventually be found in Georgia and Azerbaijan, elsewhere in the SSC area, or in the extended mountainous region remains to be seen.

Grape pressing and winemaking were generally done near where the grapes grew in antiquity, to avoid heavy transportation and conserve space within the settlement. The dense concentration of circular buildings at Shulaveri and Gadachrili would have left little room for growing grapes. Small numbers of pips might have made their way to the bottoms of the wine jars, to be disposed of later within the settlement. To date, however, no jar with seeds has been recovered from an SSC site.

Grape fermentation does not require a heat source; in fact, a cool environment, such as a cave or burying jars underground, is best. We can conclude that bread making/beer making and winemaking occurred in different places in ancient sites, the former of which contributed to the production of masses of carbonized grains, which are well-preserved, and the latter of which resulted in low amounts of carbonized seeds.

Grapes could be dried as raisins, but like uncarbonized pips, they generally degraded and have disappeared from the archaeological record. Grapes also can be preserved by concentrating them down into a syrup, but if this was the intended product, then pottery vessels from the SSC sites should show signs of carbon splotches due to exposure to fire on their exteriors. None do.

These considerations lead to the conclusion that the jars excavated at Shulaveri and Gadachrili, which provide chemical and archaeobotanical evidence for grape, probably originally contained wine.

Finally, it should be noted that Jiahu in the Yellow Valley of China still has the distinction of having produced the earliest chemically confirmed grape wine in the world, as early as ca. 7,000 BC. This wine was probably made from a local, high-sugar wild species there. However, this early Neolithic fermented beverage was not purely a grape wine, like that in the South Caucasus appears to have been, but was combined with hawthorn fruit wine, rice beer, and honey mead.

(Source: “Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus”, by Patrick McGovern et al.)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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