A Striking Discovery

On the 3rd of May 2023 a striking research article appeared in the pages of the academic journal Anthropological and Archaeological Sciences. The article revealed details of new research which had been carried out on ceramic and pottery shards found in the Caribbean, more specifically from the island of Isla de Mona, lying off the western coast of Puerto Rico midway between it and the south-eastern corner of Hispaniola.

One of these shards, which was evidently derived from an olive oil jar, revealed traces of tartaric and malic acid. What this would clearly seem to indicate was that despite its ostensible purpose for carrying olive oil, the shard came from a vessel which had been used to hold wine prior to it being broken.[1]

What is most interesting about this is that chemical and scientific analysis of the jar also revealed that it dated to the very end of the fifteenth century. What this means is that this could constitute evidence of the very first wine in the Americas. Grape wine was not being produced in the New World prior to the arrival of European settlers and this new study seems to indicate that the first wine was consequently introduced to the Americas in the Caribbean during the voyages of Christopher Columbus.[2]

Columbus’s Voyages

The discoveries announced in May 2023 must be viewed in the context of the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas in the 1490s and early 1500s. Most people are well aware that Columbus led an expedition across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 in search of a westward route to Asia and accidentally stumbled on a new continent. But few know the full details of his numerous subsequent voyages.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo (painted posthumously in 1519)

Portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo (painted posthumously in 1519)

In all Columbus led four voyages to the New World. The first was a relatively minor affair consisting of three ships. But so enthused were the King and Queen of Spain about his discoveries upon his return in 1493 that they quickly had a fleet of 17 ships prepared and sent back across the Atlantic under Columbus’s command. This expedition would last three years, exploring a vast amount of the Caribbean around Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and the West Indies.[3]

A third, smaller expedition followed in 1498 which explored the mainland of South America, while the fourth and final expedition was undertaken from 1500 as Columbus made one last effort to discover the sea route to Asia before his eventual death in 1506 back in Europe. Ultimately, the fourth expedition failed in its main objective, but Columbus did chart much of the coastline of Central America during it, from Panama north towards Honduras.[4]

The most likely scenario is that the olive oil jars which were used for storing wine and which were in use in the Puerto Rican archipelago in the 1490s arrived there during Columbus’s second expedition. This was by some margin the largest of Columbus’s four expeditions and so the amount of supplies brought with it would have been more likely to include wine.

Moreover, we know that that it was during this second expedition that Puerto Rico and the surrounding smaller islands were first located and charted by the Spanish. The extensive timeframe of the voyage, lasting nearly three years, would have allowed time for some of the ships to spend time in-situ on some of the Caribbean islands in a manner which would have resulted in ceramic jars being broken or traded in order to leave remains of their presence there down to the present day.[5]

The route of Columbus’s second voyage, 1493–6, during which the wine involved was almost certainly brought to the Isla de Mona

The route of Columbus’s second voyage, 1493–6, during which the wine involved was almost certainly brought to the Isla de Mona

The First Wine in the New World

This raises a question as to what exactly this wine was brought to the New World for. After all, it is generally assumed that seafarers of the age of exploration tended to drink either beer or, more typically, spirits such as rum. Yet these are clichés to a large extent and rum did not become a major staple of Atlantic voyaging until much later as the plentiful amounts of sugar used in it became available from sugar plantations in the Caribbean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Instead it seems more likely that wine was simply a staple of Spanish and Portuguese voyages during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As such, the shard found on the Isla de Mona is indicative of the fact that wine was a common supply on board the ships used in Columbus’s voyages.

Alternative theories which the research team involved in the study speculated on are that the wine involved might have been traded with the Taíno people of the Caribbean, in which case this may constitute the first evidence also of native consumption of grape wine in the New World. It could also have been sacramental wine brought to the Americas in the hopes of converting the natives.[6]

Whatever the use to which the wine on the Isla de Mona in the late 1490s was being put, we can now say with near certainty that there was wine in the Americas within just a few years of Columbus’s first discovery of the new continent in 1492. Thus, this element of the Columbian Exchange was one of the very earliest parts of it.

Further Reading:

‘Wine residues detected on 15th-century pottery in the Caribbean’, Archaeology, 24 May 2023.

Lawrence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1493–1504 (New York, 2011).

Lisa Briggs, Jago Cooper, Oliver E. Craig, Carl Heron, Alexandre Lucquin, María Mercedes Martínez Milantchi and Alice Samson, ‘Molecular evidence for new foodways in the early colonial Caribbean: organic residue analysis at Isla de Mona, Puerto Rico’, in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 70 (2023).

Collin Dreizen, ‘Oldest evidence yet of wine in the Americas’, Wine Spectator, 23 June 2023.

On this Day

3 May 2023 – On in this day in 2023 an article was published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciencesoutlining evidence for the possible first wine ever consumed in the Americas. The article contained details of the scientific analysis of pottery shards dating to the Caribbean in the 1490s in Puerto Rico. The shards in question came from a Spanish olive jar, but analysis of the inside of the pot indicated that wine had been stored in the jar. This would seem to indicate that the jar was used to store wine while crossing the Atlantic Ocean during one of Christopher Columbus’s first voyages to America in the 1490s. As such, we have here possible evidence for the first wine consumed in the New World. It opens the possibility that wine was being brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish from the very inception of their explorations and was possibly even traded with the native Carib people.[7]

References

[1] Lisa Briggs, Jago Cooper, Oliver E. Craig, Carl Heron, Alexandre Lucquin, María Mercedes Martínez Milantchi and Alice Samson, ‘Molecular evidence for new foodways in the early colonial Caribbean: organic residue analysis at Isla de Mona, Puerto Rico’, in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 70 (2023).

[2] ‘Wine residues detected on 15th-century pottery in the Caribbean’, Archaeology, 24 May 2023.

[3] Lawrence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1493–1504 (New York, 2011), chapters 3–7.

[4] Lawrence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1493–1504 (New York, 2011), chapters 8–13. 

[5] Lawrence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1493–1504 (New York, 2011), chapters 5–7.

[6] Collin Dreizen, ‘Oldest evidence yet of wine in the Americas’, Wine Spectator, 23 June 2023.

[7] Lisa Briggs, Jago Cooper, Oliver E. Craig, Carl Heron, Alexandre Lucquin, María Mercedes Martínez Milantchi and Alice Samson, ‘Molecular evidence for new foodways in the early colonial Caribbean: organic residue analysis at Isla de Mona, Puerto Rico’, in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 70 (2023).

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

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