Changing Views of Pre-History

For much of the last 200 years, while the professional disciplines of history and archaeology have developed, there has been a pretty rigid and monolithic view of pre-history. This is the period before human beings began organising themselves into the first primitive Stone Age societies and began farming and making tools and weapons from stone.

This traditional view holds that homo sapiens largely spent much of the last Ice Age barely developing, wandering around in small groups that hunted and gathered, often co-habiting in caves. Their cultural accounts of their existences, such as they were, were primarily confined to cave paintings recording their hunts and also the production of the first basic pottery figurines, some of which date to Central Europe around 25,000 BC.

But traditionally speaking there has been little effort to understand the transitional period between this long period of stasis and the emergence of the first civilizations on the Fertile Crescent around 9000 or 8000 BC. The implication has typically been that when the Ice Age ended and the ice melted it simply allowed for the inherent potential of human beings to create more complex societies to spring forth.

But this view is being challenged today and there is now a growing concern to highlight the manner in which we were already becoming more and more complex as a species during the Pleistocene Period or Ice Age. [Text Box 1]

One of these initiatives, surprisingly enough, has focused on the domestication of grapes, which took place millennia before we ever began pressing them into juice and making wine out of them.[1]

The First Grape Eaters

A study conducted in the mid-2010s and the results of which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, revealed very interesting new details concerning the consumption of grapes by human beings. This indicated that as the ice sheets which covered much of North America and Europe first began retreating, and it became possible for wild grapes to grow in greater abundance, humans started foraging for and consuming grapes around 22,000 BC.

This contradicts previously prevailing wisdom concerning grape consumption, which used to hold that grapes were not widely consumed by human beings until they were domesticated around 8000 BC after the Ice Age ended. As such, what we have here, as part of our ever shifting knowledge concerning pre-history, is evidence that humans were actively seeking out and eating grapes 14,000 years before they domesticated them.

What is most remarkable about this is the rate which Pleistocene-era hunter gatherers seem to have been consuming wild grapes. The study carried out in the mid-2010s revealed that between the period around 22,000 BC, when humans first began actively seeking out and consuming grapes, the populations of the fruit steadily decreased between then and the advent of the Neolithic period around 8000 BC. What this suggests is that grapes were not just a form of standard sustenance, but were a favoured food type of hunter gatherers to the extent they were over-harvesting them.[2]

Humans were foraging for grapes when the woolly mammoth was still around

Humans were foraging for grapes when the woolly mammoth was still around

The Road to Domestication

Curiously enough, it was around 8000 BC, when the grape population across broad stretches of the Fertile Crescent, Caucasus and other regions had declined considerably through excessive foraging, that human beings began to first domesticate the grape. This was not entirely unexpected. After all, this was right around the same time period that Stone Age societies began domesticating many cereal crops and other food staples in several parts of the world.

But in the main the crops that were domesticated around this time were things like wheat, grain and corn that are food staples that can feed a large number of people on a small amount of land as they are carbohydrate and calorie rich. Grapes, by way of contrast, are not high in calories and domestication of them would have been for something of a luxury purpose: to produce a crop low in calories, but which was desired by the community which cultivated it.

Thus, we have here a seemingly clear Ice Age and Stone Age example of a food ‘taste’ rather than a piece of sustenance. It was only a small leap from there to experimenting with the fruit to discover that it could be fermented into alcohol and about 6000 BC or so we find the first wine being produced in the Caucasus.

Might we be able to say that the early development of grape wine was a by-product of the fact that humans had already become familiar with the consumption and properties of grapes as much as 15,000 or so years earlier? It can’t be said for sure, but like so many other elements of the history of human beings during the Pleistocene era, intriguing questions can be asked.[3]

Text Box 1 – The Birth of Everything

Anyone with an interest in the subject of the revising of prehistory should probably consult David Graeber and David Wengrow’s recent book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Here the authors explore from the perspective of an anthropologist and an archaeologist the prehistory of humanity. Much of their focus is on the concept of equality and whether or not inequality is a by-product of developed civilizations, but their work also is notable for its study of prehistory and how human beings were developing in much more complex ways than has previously been understood as far back as 30,000 BC or more. We weren’t, as they point out in the introduction, simply wandering around doing a bit of hunting and gathering and painting the occasional cave drawing for tens of thousands of years. There was more going on than previously understood.[4]

Further Reading:

‘Genomic study reveals clues to wild past of grapes: Humans may have gathered them for 15,000 years before cultivating the fruit as a crop’, ScienceDaily, 2 November 2017.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (New York, 2021).

Diane Nelson, ‘Gathering Grapes’, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of California at Davis, 21 November 2017.

Yongfeng Zhou, Mélanie Massonnet, Jaleal S. Sanjak, Dario Cantu and Brandon S. Gaut, ‘Evolutionary genomics of grape (Vitis viniferassp.vinifera) domestication’, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 114, No. 44 (2017), p. 11715.

On this Day

2 November 2017 – On in this day in 2017 a study appeared in the pages of the Proceedings of the Academy of National Sciences which revealed that human beings had been consuming grapes as early as 22,000 BC. This was somewhat revelatory, as conventional wisdom had assumed that grapes were not widely consumed by homo sapiens until the point at which they were domesticated shortly after the end of the last Ice Age around 8000 BC. This adds to growing views that human activity during the Ice Age was much more complex than we traditionally account it to be. Incredibly, by the time we domesticated grapes around 8000 BC, the range of wild grapes had been depleted significantly owing to over-foraging. Thus, by the time we domesticated the vine and then began using its fruit to make wine around 6000 BC, we already seem to have developed an affinity for the grape.[5]

References

[1] David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (New York, 2021).

[2] ‘Genomic study reveals clues to wild past of grapes: Humans may have gathered them for 15,000 years before cultivating the fruit as a crop’, ScienceDaily, 2 November 2017; Diane Nelson, ‘Gathering Grapes’, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of California at Davis, 21 November 2017.

[3] Yongfeng Zhou, Mélanie Massonnet, Jaleal S. Sanjak, Dario Cantu and Brandon S. Gaut, ‘Evolutionary genomics of grape (Vitis viniferassp.vinifera) domestication’, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 114, No. 44 (2017), p. 11715.

[4] David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (New York, 2021).

[5] ‘Genomic study reveals clues to wild past of grapes: Humans may have gathered them for 15,000 years before cultivating the fruit as a crop’, ScienceDaily, 2 November 2017; Diane Nelson, ‘Gathering Grapes’, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of California at Davis, 21 November 2017; Yongfeng Zhou, Mélanie Massonnet, Jaleal S. Sanjak, Dario Cantu and Brandon S. Gaut, ‘Evolutionary genomics of grape (Vitis viniferassp.vinifera) domestication’, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 114, No. 44 (2017), p. 11715.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Setting the Table- The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting- Combined Edition

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: February 29, 2024Last Updated: February 29, 2024

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!