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Prehistoric Europe

Wine Domestication

by John De Cleene & Peter Kessler, 13 February 2024


The Mesolithic period in the South Caucasus area of Europe saw this mountainous region being drip-fed influences from the Near East. Proto-Neolithic ideas about farming were starting to reach today's territory of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

An array of archaeological cultures existed here during this period, many of which have been grouped by some scholars under the banner of the Trialetian.

This grouping is far from universally accepted and, indeed, is being marginalised in professional archaeology in favour of recognising the North-Eastern Black Sea, Chokh, Gubs, Imeretian, and even a localised Trialeti as individual cultures.

All of these cultures exhibited similar traits, albeit with localised differences, and all were gradually being drip-fed early farming influences from the Near East between about 10,000-6000 BC. Primarily, it seems, this was from the people of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A culture of the Levant.

Strangely, or perhaps not so given the perfect conditions in the South Caucasus, it was not the Neolithic early farmers but the people of the South Caucasus - still Mesolithic hunters and foragers - who were amongst the very first anatomically modern humans to domesticate the grape.

According to an article which was published in the journal, Science, on 2 March 2023, the retreat of ice age glaciers created warmer and far more pleasant conditions, especially in Southern Europe.

The conditions - if not the people - were ripe for the development and spread of agriculture.

The published article was the product of a study by scientists from seventeen nations across Europe and Asia. The senior author was Wei Chen, an evolutionary biologist at Yunnan Agricultural University. The co-author was Peter Nick, a plant biologist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

They and their researchers studied the genomes of grapevines from territory between the Iberian peninsula and Japan to identify overlooked varieties of grape.

They concluded that the one grape species which was suitable for wine producing, Vitis vinifera, was first cultivated around 9000 BC by humans in two separate geographic areas.

The first of these was in the Caucasus region of modern Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The second was a little under a thousand kilometres away, in western Asia.

The grape is hermaphroditic and can reproduce itself, a characteristic of modern grapes which are grown for wine.

The report indicated that wine production followed this development, although archaeological evidence places the earliest winemaking in Georgia around 6000 BC, about three thousand years after the first cultivation, and on the cusp of the start of Neolithic farming in the region.

In part this was by the people of the Shulaveri-Shomu farming culture who ensured that wine-making would become a huge success.

Neolithic pottery from the South Caucasus
This Neolithic wine-storage vessel is almost a metre wide and a metre tall, pieced back together from thousands of similar shards which were dated to about 6000 BC, at the very start of the Neolithic in the South Caucasus region


Main Sources

Joel Achenbach - Wine grapes were first domesticated 11,000 years ago, gene study says (Washington Post, 2 March 2023, accessed 4 March 2023)

from The Magdalenian Settlement of Europe, Quaternary International Volumes 272-273 (2012)

Online Sources

H A Amirkhanov - On the Cultural Geography of the Eastern Caucasus and Southern Caspian in the Mesolithic (Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia, 2022;50(1):39-47)

Indo-European.eu - Early Mesolithic

Indo-Europeans and Uralic Peoples - Caucasus Mesolithic

Science Direct - Mesolithic Period

Olena Smyntyna - Mesolithic Settlements of the Ukrainian Steppes: migration as sociocultural response to a changing world (British Archaeological Reports, International Series, 2456, 93-98, January 2013, and available via ResearchGate)

Olena Smyntyna - Cultural resilience theory as an instrument of modelling human response to global climate change. A case study in the north-western Black Sea region: on the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary (Odesa I I Mechnikov National University, January 2016, and available via ResearchGate)

Karol Szymczak - The Palaeolithic of the Western Steppe Zone (Reference Module in Social Sciences, 2023, available via Science Direct)

Karol Szymczak - A problem of the bullet shaped cores: a global perspective (University of Warsaw, 2002, and available via Academia.edu)



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler, John De Cleene, and original contributors. An original feature for the History Files.