Wine has been an integral part of human civilization for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that wine production originated as early as 6,000 BC in areas like the Caucasus Mountains, the Middle East, and China. However, indigenous populations around the world developed their own unique wine cultures independent of Eurasian influence. Here is an overview of wine production among various indigenous groups throughout history.
Wine and Indigenous People in History – the Americas
Indigenous Peoples of North America
When European settlers arrived in North America in the 16th and 17th centuries, they discovered some Native American tribes already had rudimentary forms of wine production using local fruits and plants.
Table 1: Indigenous Wine Production in North America
The Creek tribe of the Southeastern United States fermented persimmons and blackberries into lightly alcoholic beverages. The Apache tribe used agave to make an alcoholic drink called tiswin. Pueblo tribes like the Taos Pueblo infused yucca flowers in water to produce sopi, a mild ceremonial wine. However, wine never became a substantial part of North American indigenous culture.
In Mesoamerica, the Maya civilization developed sophisticated wine-making capabilities using indigenous crops like maize. Archaeological evidence from sites like El Mirador in Guatemala shows the Maya fermented maize, mashed into a beer-like pulp, as early as 300 BC. They flavored their maize wines with honey, peppers, and other local spices. Maize wine, called balché, was mainly reserved for religious and medicinal purposes among the Maya nobility.
The Inca Empire also produced maize-based wine called chicha, but on an industrial scale. At the height of its power in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Inca dedicated entire towns to brewing chicha to provision their armies. Like balché, chicha was also used in Inca religious ceremonies. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, they adopted chicha but began adding their own ingredients like cinnamon and sugar. Chicha is still widely consumed in the Andes today.
Wine and Indigenous People in History – Africa
Indigenous African peoples have made wine from native ingredients like honey, millet, sorghum, and palm for thousands of years. One of the earliest evidence of wine in Africa comes from Egypt, where archaeologists have found 5,000-year-old wine residues in Abydos. Ancient Egyptians made wine by fermenting pomegranates and grapes, reserving it mainly for royal and religious use.
The natives of sub-Saharan Africa also developed unique forms of wine production:
Table 2: Indigenous Wine Production in Africa
The Nummo people used honey gathered from wild jungle bees to make mead as part of religious libations. Tuareg nomads in the Sahara fermented wild desert millet into bouza, a beer-like beverage still popular in North Africa. And the Kofyar tribe of Central Nigeria has made palm wine for centuries by tapping raffia palms.
Wine and Indigenous People in History- Australia and the Pacific
Even the most remote Pacific islands developed unique forms of fermented beverages before European contact.
Table 3: Indigenous Wine Production in the Pacific
Kernels of the kiekie vine
Aboriginal tribes like the Yolngu infused eucalyptus bark into water to make a medicinal beverage. The Māori discovered they could make an alcoholic drink called waiki by chewing the kernels of the native kiekie vine. And many Pacific Islanders made grog from the kava plant, which has mild anesthetic properties.
The Arrival of European Grapes and Winemaking
The wine cultures of North and South America, Africa, and the Pacific were irrevocably changed by the arrival of European colonists. Spanish conquistadors introduced grapevines across the Americas in the early 1500s, founding major wine regions like Argentina’s Mendoza Valley. Jesuit priests established viticulture practices in parts of Canada and the United States.
At the Cape Colony, the Dutch founded South Africa’s wine industry by planting the first vines in Constantia in 1659. Wine grapes spread across Africa’s Mediterranean coastline under French colonization. And the British brought grapes to Australia and New Zealand in the late 1700s.
Indigenous peoples often provided the manual labor that made colonization of their lands possible. The skills and knowledge of native farmers and workers contributed enormously to the development of wine industries across these continents.
However, wine also became a tool of subjugation. European settlers intentionally used alcohol to weaken and control indigenous populations. And over centuries of discrimination and oppression, many native communities have lost their traditional wine heritages.
Indigenous Winemaking Today
Did you know? In recent decades, there has been a revival of indigenous winemaking traditions, led by native activists and producers seeking to reclaim their culture.
For example, Mexico’s Tohono O’odham tribe has replanted heirloom maize to make ancient chicha recipes. The Sami people of northern Scandinavia forage for herbs and berries to make modern meads. And the First Nations band at British Columbia’s Nk’Mip Winery combines traditional knowledge with modern winemaking.
These wineries build cultural pride and preserve nearly lost traditions. They also create economic opportunities by bottling native ingredients into award-winning vintages. Indigenous winemaking may never return to its pre-colonial prominence, but it survives as an expression of resilience and adaptation.
Wine has been deeply intertwined with indigenous cultures for millennia, long before European contact. While colonization irrevocably changed native wine practices, a growing movement seeks to revive ancient wine heritages. Indigenous wines today tell a narrative of cultural survival, reminding us that the history of wine is the history of humanity itself. By supporting these wineries, we help uphold valuable food traditions that connect us to the past.