By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • May 23, 2016
Think about wine in the ancient world, and chances are you’ll picture chalices, feasts and rituals: The stuff of elites. But ruins in Greece suggest that wine may have roots that are more populist than we typically think—even as far back as the Stone Age—according to a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
In the 1990s, archaeobotanist Soultana Valamoti began studying the ruins of a Neolithic village at Dikili Tash, first discovered in northern Greece in the early 1920s. (For those of you who’ve forgotten your ancient eras, the Neolithic era was the late Stone Age—the period when humans began shaping stone tools and producing, rather than hunting and gathering, their food.)
Initially, Valamoti was looking for evidence of what kind of food the residents of a home in the village had consumed—a common line of inquiry in archaeobotany, which studies the relationship between people and plants. She examined material from a then-recent excavation at the site, which revealed a few thousand grape pips, or seeds—which in turn indicated juicing, a precursor to winemaking.“Because of the wealth of information inside [the house], we needed to carry on,” says Valmoti, who secured additional funding to support another, more thorough excavation of the house.
(Full disclosure: Valamoti’s research was funded in part by the National Geographic Society, the nonprofit affiliate of National Geographic Partners, which publishes ‘The Plate.”)
Now, identifying the origins of alcohol takes a different kind of excavation than, say, finding skeletons. Because foodstuffs and plants decompose easily, scientists must test soil and shards of pots, looking for trace compounds that can suggest exactly what kinds of food may have been present. And that makes Valamoti’s research particularly painstaking.
As Valamoti and other researchers uncovered more of the house in excavations between 2008 and 2013, they found increasing evidence of wine. Instead of just one pot with pips, they found several with pips and skins in and around the shards. Testing of the pottery revealed tartaric acid, a compound found in grapes and pomengranates; the latter don’t grow in northern Greece, leaving grapes as the likely source. Nearby, the archaeobotanists found small clay cups and a vessel designed for liquid. “We have in a way the winemaking process, and the vessels for serving and consuming the wine,” says Valamoti. “How skeptical can you be that this is not wine? We have stretched all the other possibilities.”
Dated at 4300 B.C., Valamoti’s discovery isn’t the earliest suggestion of wine in the world. That rank belongs to a discovery by Patrick McGovern—nicknamed the “beer archaeologist” —who, along with colleagues, uncovered residues suggesting wine in Iran as early as 5400 B.C. But Valamoti’s discovery at Dikili Tash is proof of the earliest wine in Europe, and the only one to rely on both residues—in this case, tartaric acid—and actual grape pressings.
Indeed, Valamoti is not the only one looking into ancient alcohol. Other archaeologists have made a name for themselves through similar inquiries. Delwen Samuel, another archaeobotanist, identifiedsophisticated beer brewing practices among the ancient Egyptians.McGovern’s research into ancient booze includes both beer and wine. He has identified the earliest known booze, in Neolithic China, which was drunk 9,000 years ago. And his research at King Midas’ tomb has yielded rough recipes for ancient beers; called Midas’ Touch, that brew has won its modern commercial translator, Dogfish Head Brewery, multiple medals.
Most studies of wine focus on the Bronze Age, where wine was frequently reserved for feasts among elites. Finding wine at the Neolithic house suggests that “people were making wine in different parts of the world where grapes are available,” whether wild or cultivated, says Valamoti. And because the house is roughly the same in size and content as others around it, says Valamoti, it also suggests that wine was commonly found among the common people. “[Y]ou can have wine, but not a heavily stratified society.”
And, of course, there’s one other obvious takeaway: “It tells us people could get intoxicated 7,000 years ago,” says Valamoti.