The Roots of the Vine and the Wine: Exploring the Origins of Viticulture

Unlike beer which is produced by the recently invented process of brewing, wine is produced by the natural fermentation process. Since the domestication of fruits, wild yeast has been used to convert the sugar contents of fruits by fermentation to alcohol.

The fermentation, and pre-steps of growing and harvesting fruits, especially grapes for producing wine, is known as viticulture. Viticulture is a branch of horticulture and has been around for nearly as long as all of the other basic aspects of what we would term civilization, things like agriculture, tool-making, and house construction. Archaeological findings suggest that human (Homo sapiens) was fermenting grape juice before they could write or began developing modern alphabets.

The Origins of Viticulture

The origin of viticulture cannot be pointed out to a specific region, and it can be claimed that the culture evolved in almost all parts of the world except Antarctica. However, the roots of viticulture are not found right at the beginning of humanity’s evolution, not least because all modern Homo sapiens are assumed to be descended from a branch of ancestors that evolved in Africa over two million years ago, and there is no evidence of grapes growing in Africa.

While the grape from which all modern viticulture is practiced, vitis vinifera, is native to Eurasia, it is was not until Homo sapiens emerged out of Africa over 60,000 years ago that modern humans first came into contact with the grapes which they would eventually learn to make wine from.[1]

The Origins of Viticulture

Vineyard

The roots of viticulture are contested among historians as to when and where the culture was first developed. One of the theories holds that the origin of viticulture took place in the region to which vitis vinifera was native, a large tract of land lying in the Transcaucasus region along the coasts of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, southwards into modern-day Iraq and Iran.  On the other hand, the earliest evidence of wine production was found in the region’s modern days, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and dates back to roughly 6000 BC, some 8,000 years ago.[2]

The aforementioned theories are not the only assumptions about the origin of viticultures. This situation is somewhat complicated by the viticultures developments in the east. Archeological records suggest that nearly 9,000 years ago, roughly around 7000 BC, human societies in China were already making wine too. But this was not the same as modern wine produced from grape juice of the vitis vinifera.

The early wines in China were produced from different natural ingredients, with the primary being rice. Nevertheless, there is also substantial evidence to suggest that the early Chinese wine-makers incorporated berries into their wine-making on occasion, grapes being just one of many in this respect. Thus, we have two different incidents of early human civilization determining how to produce wine independently of each other during the Neolithic period here on either side of Asia.[3]

Despite the initial viticulture evolution in the two separate regions of Asia, it was the wine culture developed in the west that became much more significant. From the Transcaucasus region vitis vinifera was soon relocated and cultivated in new regions. This was not an accidental spread of the vine. Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic societies were actively taking cuttings of vitis vinifera and transplanting them to new regions where the plant was not native.

As a result of this relocation of the vine by 5500 BC, wine was being produced in significant quantities at Hajji Firuz Tepe, the site of a significant Neolithic town in the northern Zagros Mountains. Here a significant population lived for hundreds of years in the sixth millennium BC in the region, the border area between Iraq and Azerbaijan.

Excavations were undertaken at Hajji Firuz Tepe region in the late 1950s and into the 1960s by the archaeologist, Charles Burney. Analysis of the excavation revealed that residents about 7,000 years ago had mastered their pottery-making skills and viticulture to the extent that they were storing wine in large jars that could hold over 50 litres of wine. Consequently, it is regarded as one of the most important sites with the early history of viticulture in the world. The people here were also using terebinth tree resin as a preservative, indicating a sophisticated knowledge of viticulture by this time.[4]

From this point onwards, viticulture expanded quickly in the surrounding regions. By 4100 BC a mass-production facility was constructed at the Areni-1 Cave in Armenia, the world’s first known winery. And then, with the advent of the Bronze Age and the rapid expansion of societies in the region along the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, Levant and North Africa, viticulture flourished across these regions.[5]

Thus, by the late 4th millennium BC we find wine production expanding in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. There is even considerable evidence to suggest that the first writing systems and trade networks were introduced at that time with their development by societies looking to trade with each other along the course of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers and across the Eastern Mediterranean.[1]

Also read: Armenia, The World’s First Winery

Soon after the development of wine and viticulture in those regions, they became significant elements within the literature, laws and religion of the world’s leading early civilizations. Is it evident from the facts that laws around wine were mentioned within the Law Code of Hammurabi in Ancient Babylon, while wine was also a strong element of early mythologies and religions, not least much of the Old Testament. By the late second millennium BC there were even gods featuring in the religious systems of several civilizations who were noted as being deities intimately connected with wine, notably Dionysius, the Greek god of wine.[2]

By the time the societies of the Mediterranean and Levant entered the Iron Age from approximately 1000 BC onwards, viticulture had become an integral part of these civilizations such that it had impacted their religions, writing systems, trade networks, and literature. It was a remarkable ascent for a practice of fermentation which arose around 6000 BC in the region between the east of the Black Sea and the northern shores of the Caspian Sea.

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Further Reading:

Patrick E. McGovern, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages (Berkeley, California, 2009).

Patrick E. McGovern, et al., ‘Fermented Beverages of Pre- and Proto-Historic China’, in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, United States of America, Vol. 110, No. 25 (2013), pp. 10147–10152.

  1. Mirzoain and G. R. Hall, ‘Ancient Egyptian Herbal Wines’, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, United States of America, Vol. 106, No. 18 (2009), pp. 7361–7366.
  2. Pellechia, Wine: The 8,000-Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade (London, 2006).

Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).       

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On this Day

14 June 1924 – On in this day in 1924 Jacques de Morgan, a French archaeologist and engineer, died. In 1901, he led an expedition to the ancient city of Susa in the lower Zagros Mountains of what is now western Iran. There he and a fellow Egyptologist, Gustav Jéquier, discovered an ancient stele containing the Law Code of Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian king who ruled Mesopotamia around 3,700 years ago. The Law Code had over 280 laws, several of which addressed the politics and legalities of wine in ancient Babylon. For instance, if people of bad character gathered in the establishment of a wine merchant, and the said wine merchant did not try to have them arrested and brought to the king’s palace under custody, then the wine merchant was to be put to death. Several other strictures proposed equally brutal sanctions. The harshness of these aside, what is interesting about this is that the Law Code of Hammurabi indicates how engrained wine had become in the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent by the early second millennium BC that many laws were being created around its sale and consumption.[6]

26 October 1943 – On in this day in 1943, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born British archaeologist, died at Kabul in Afghanistan. Several years earlier, in 1936, Stein had become the first individual to undertake excavations at Hajji Firuz Tepe, the site of a Neolithic village in the northern Zagros Mountains of Iran. Subsequent excavations led by Charles Burney at the site from 1958 onwards into the 1960s revealed that the village, which was settled between 7,000 and 7,500 years ago, was one of the first centres in the world where wine was extensively produced and consumed on Earth. Here Neolithic people around 5500 BC were experts in making 55 litre jars in which they stored large volumes of wine, making Hajji Firuz Tepe one of the most substantial sites in the early history of viticulture worldwide.[7]

Want to read more books? Try these books!

Grape Man of Texas- Thomas Volney Munson and the Origins of American Viticulture Ancient Wine- The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton Science Library, 66)

References

  1. ‘Origins of Viniculture’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Patrick E. McGovern, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages (Berkeley, California, 2009).
  2. http://www.wright.edu/~christopher.oldstone-moore/Hamm.htm [accessed 5/6/22]; https://www.worldhistory.org/Code_of_Hammurabi/ [accessed 5/6/22]; https://www.vinetowinecircle.com/en/history/beginnings-of-viticulture/ [accessed 6/6/22].
  3. Richard Leakey, The Origins of Human Kind (New York, 1994); Ann Gibbons, The First Human (New York, 2006).
  4. A. Mirzoain and G. R. Hall, ‘Ancient Egyptian Herbal Wines’, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, United States of America, Vol. 106, No. 18 (2009), pp. 7361–7366; ‘Origins of Viniculture’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
  5. Andrew Dalby, The Story of Bacchus (London, 2005); Dan Stanislawski, ‘Dionysus Westward: Early Religion and the Economic Geography of Wine’, in Geographical Review, Vol. 65, No. 4 (October, 1975), pp. 427–444; J. Vurthem, ‘The Miracle of the Wine at Dionysos’ Advent: On the Lenea Festival’, in The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2 (April, 1920), pp. 92–96.
  6. http://www.wright.edu/~christopher.oldstone-moore/Hamm.htm [accessed 5/6/22]; https://www.worldhistory.org/Code_of_Hammurabi/ [accessed 5/6/22].
  7. https://ancientneareast.tripod.com/Hajji_Firuz_Tepe.html [accessed 6/6/22]; Mark Berkowitz, ‘World’s Earliest Wine’, in Archaeology, Vol. 49, No. 5 (1996); R. Phillips, A Short History of Wine (New York, 2000), pp. 2–3.
  8. T. Pellechia, Wine: The 8,000 Year Old Story of the Wine Trade (London, 2006).
  9. ‘Origins of Viniculture’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
  10. Patrick E. McGovern, et al., ‘Fermented Beverages of Pre- and Proto-Historic China’, in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, United States of America, Vol. 110, No. 25 (2013), pp. 10147–10152.
  11. https://ancientneareast.tripod.com/Hajji_Firuz_Tepe.html [accessed 6/6/22]; Mark Berkowitz, ‘World’s Earliest Wine’, in Archaeology, Vol. 49, No. 5 (1996); R. Phillips, A Short History of Wine (New York, 2000), pp. 2–3.
  12. https://www.worldhistory.org/Areni_Cave/ [accessed 7/6/22]; G. Areshian, et al., ‘The Chalcolithic of the Near East and South-Eastern Europe: Discoveries and New Perspectives from the Cave Complex Areni-1, Armenia’, in Antiquity, Vol. 86 (2012), pp. 115–130; Keith Wilkinson, et al., ‘Areni-1 Cave, Armenia: A Chalcolithic–Early Bronze Age Settlement and Ritual Site in the Southern Caucasus’, in Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March, 2012), pp. 20–33.

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