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24 July 2004
Archaeologist traces wine origin to Neolithic

The first wine-tasting may have occurred when prehistoric 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.
     "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. Combining archaeology with chemical and molecular analysis, McGovern has has already pushed our knowledge of vinicultural history back to Neolithic times. Now McGovern is searching in eastern Turkey for the origins of grape domestication.
     The wild Eurasian grapevine 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 by comparing DNA from the wild grape with that of modern cultivars. The scientist recently returned from an expedition to Turkey's Taurus Mountains. There, he  searched wild grapevines untouched by modern cultivation methods. The remote area he visited includes the 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.
     McGovern heads the Molecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA). Early in his career, while he 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 site dating back to before 1,200 BCE. "It 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 BCE, 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. 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.
     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. The scientist will run his usual battery of tests on the pottery and stone fragments collected during his expedition in the region. For the scientist, the study of wine, with all its social and economic complexities, can open the doors of perception into ancient civilizations.

Source: National Geographic News (21 July 2004)

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