Wine snobs might shudder at the thought, but the first wine-tasting may have occurred when Paleolithic humans slurped the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes from animal-skin pouches or crude wooden bowls. The idea of winemaking may have occurred to our alert and resourceful ancestors when they observed birds gorging themselves silly on fermented fruit and decided to see what the buzz was all about.

"The whole process is sort of magical," said Patrick McGovern, an expert on the origins of ancient wine and a leader in the emerging field of biomolecular archaeology. "You could even call [fermentation] the first biotechnology," said McGovern, who is based at Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania.

An expert on ancient wine, Patrick McGovern is searching for the origins of the first domesticated grapevine. Above, the University of Pennsylvania archaeologist searches a ravine near the headwaters of the Tigris River in Turkey's Taurus Mountains for grapevines untouched by human cultivation.
Photograph courtesy P.E. McGovern

Combining archaeology with chemical and molecular analysis, McGovern has carved a niche for himself as an expert in ancient organics—particularly wine. He has already pushed our knowledge of vinicultural history back to Neolithic times (the late Stone Age). Now McGovern is searching in eastern Turkey for the origins of grape domestication.

The scientist lacks the physical evidence to prove his hypothesis that hunter-gatherers made what he calls "Stone Age beaujolais nouveau." But he has shown, through a combination of archaeological sleuthing and chemical analysis, that the history of wine extends to the Neolithic period (8,500-4,000 B.C.) and the first glimmerings of civilization.

Gods and Grapes

The wild Eurasian grapevine (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) is found from Spain to Central Asia. Cultivars, or varieties bred from the vine, account for nearly all of the wine produced today.

McGovern is attempting to establish the origin of the earliest Neolithic viniculture—where grapevines were cultivated and winemaking developed. By comparing DNA from the wild grape with that of modern cultivars, McGovern and his colleagues hope to pinpoint the origin of domestication.

The scientist recently returned from an expedition to Turkey's Taurus Mountains near the headwaters of the Tigris River. There, he combed rugged river valleys in search of wild grapevines untouched by modern cultivation methods. McGovern was joined by José Vouillamoz, from Italy's Istituto Agrario di San Michele all'Adige in Trento, and Ali Ergül, from Turkey's Ankara University.

"We're looking in eastern Turkey, because that's where other plants were domesticated," McGovern said in a telephone interview before his trip. "We're going out there to collect wild grapevines with local cultivars, so we can see what the relationship is and maybe make a case that this is where the first domestication occurred."

One dramatic setting for the researchers' grapevine collecting was a deeply cut ravine below the site known as Nemrut Daghi. "A first-century B.C. ruler, Antiochus I Epiphanes, had statues of himself in the company of the gods hewn out of limestone on a mountaintop at about 7,000 feet [2,130 meters]," McGovern said.

The remote area includes the important Neolithic site of Çayönü. From this and other archaeological digs, McGovern collected pottery and stone fragments to test for ancient organic material—perhaps the residue of long-evaporated, locally produced wine.

In Search of Ancient Organics

McGovern heads the Molecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA). He is the author of Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2003 Princeton University Press). The book is an account of the scientist's long career combining analytical chemistry and biochemistry with archaeology—sometimes with startling results.

McGovern's quest for the origins of ancient wine all began with a sea snail. In ancient times, royal purple, the deep blue dye derived from the glands of Mediterranean mollusks, was the color of kings and emperors—and for good reason. It takes ten thousand glands to produce one gram of the purple liquid. The dye had long been associated with the early Phoenicians.

Early in his career, while McGovern served as a pottery specialist on a University of Pennsylvania expedition to Lebanon, workers excavated pottery fragments that had a dark red residue inside. "We had some samples that were about 3,000 years old, and we started a series of analyses," the scientist recalled.

McGovern's results established with a high level of probability that the residue was genuine royal purple from a pre-Phoenician (Canaanite) site dating back to before 1,200 B.C. "It was a very exciting discovery, which showed that these organic compounds can stick around for a long time," he said.

McGovern reasoned that other high-end organics—such as wine—could be chemically teased out of the archaeological record. In 1988 a colleague, Virginia Badler, brought him fragments of a jar. The shards, dated back to about 3,000 B.C., came from the ancient village of Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran.

Badler suspected that the reddish stain present on one side of the fragments was wine residue. McGovern's tests proved her hunch correct.

Together with colleague Rudolph Michel, McGovern used several techniques to test the samples, including infrared analysis, liquid chromatography, and a specific wet chemical test for tartaric acid.

"We focused on this one compound called tartaric acid, which in the Middle East is very specific to grapes," McGovern said. "So if you can identify that, then you will show that you have a grape product."

The vessel's shape and stoppered neck indicated that its makers intended to keep oxygen out. (Oxygen turns wine into vinegar.) Further tests indicated the presence of resin from the terebinth tree, a Middle Eastern member of the cashew family.

According to McGovern, aromatic resins were often used in ancient times to preserve wine and sometimes mask unpleasant tastes or flavors. Resinated wines were common. One variety exists today in Greece—the pine tree-flavored wine called retsina.

In all likelihood, the jar once held an ancient vintage of wine. McGovern's detective work indicated that winemaking dated back to at least 5,000 years ago—much older than previously thought.

A few years later, his chemical analysis of pottery excavated from a site called Hajii Firuz, also in Iran's Zagros Mountains, pushed the earliest known evidence of wine back another 2,000 to 2,400 years, well into the Neolithic period.

After the Flood, Noah Grew Grapes

McGovern's current focus on eastern Turkey reflects his hypothesis that grape domestication, and its attendant wine culture, began in a specific region and spread across the ancient world.

He calls it the Noah Hypothesis, as it suggests a single locality for an ancestor grape, much as the Eve Hypothesis claims that human ancestry can be genetically traced to a single African mother. In the Bible, Noah landed on the slopes of Mount Ararat (in what is now eastern Turkey) after the Flood. He is described as immediately planting grapevines and making wine.

Neolithic eastern and southeastern Turkey seems to have been fertile ground for the birth of agriculture. "Einkorn wheat appears to have been domesticated there, one of the so-called Neolithic founder plants—the original domesticated plants that led to people settling down and building towns," McGovern explained. "So all the pieces are there for early domestication of the grape."

The scientist will run his usual battery of tests on the pottery and stone fragments collected during his expedition in the region. He'll also subject the objects to a special liquid test to confirm the presence of tartaric acid. McGovern's Italian and Turkish colleagues, meanwhile, will carry out the DNA analysis. "Once I start doing the analyses, then we'll see if we have any evidence," he said.

For McGovern, the study of wine, with all its social and economic complexities, can open the doors of perception into ancient civilizations. Even a good bottle of Merlot or Shiraz, enjoyed today, can recreate history, in a sense.

"You feel like you're transported back in time to when this beverage was actually served," the scientist mused. "That's what I think is so exciting about this kind of research. It really is taking those little hints and clues about the organic remains. It makes it come alive."