Ancient pips reveal thirst for pleasures of the vine

Gastroarchaeology, the study of our ancestors’ cooking and eating habits, has a long history. Based initially on animal bones, the recent systematic recovery of plant remains and even coprolites – fossilised faeces – has led to a more broad-based understanding of ancient diets.

Our earliest forebears seem to have scavenged for meat from carnivore kills, collected fruits and seeds, and grubbed for roots: some ten millennia ago people in the Middle East began to grow wheat, barley, lentils and other cereals and pulses, and domesticated sheep, goats, cattle and pigs to eat, and then for milk, cheese, and wool. In the Americas, maize was the staple crop, while few animals were domesticated, even by the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Several recent studies have expanded our understanding: in northern Greece, a burnt-down house has preserved what are claimed to be the oldest known grapes, and the earliest evidence for wine.

Excavations at the site of Dikili Tash, near Drama in Greek Macedonia, have revealed four late-Neolithic rectangular houses destroyed in a conflagration between 5000 and 4500BC. “They contained ovens, storage bins, pots, and a wide variety of objects related to daily activities”, Dr S. M. Valamoti and colleagues report in Antiquity.

The plant remains recovered included wheat, barley, lentils, peas, figs, acorns and wild pears. On one of the floors were some 2,500 grape pips and more than 300 empty, pressed grapeskins: the size of the pips suggested that the grapes were either wild or at a very early stage of cultivation.

Experimental charring of modern wine pressings yielded similar remains, distinct from those of charred fresh grapes and raisins. “We can therefore conclude with some certainty that the concentration of grapes found at Dikili Tash represents the byproducts of extracting juice from grapes,” the investigators say.

Although grape juice in historic Greece has been boiled down and used to make sweets, given the bitter taste of wild grape juice “it might have made more sense to produce a fermented beverage rather than a syrup,” they say, with figs or honey being used to sweeten the wine.

It seems likely, they argue, that wine-making preceded domestication of grapes: pottery vessels from the burnt houses at Dikili Tash included two-handled cups and jars suited to decanting and drinking.

Cups from another and slightly earlier Greek site, Makriyalos, were associated with feasting, and analysis of their contents would be worthwhile.

The Greek grapes antedate by several centuries the recent discovery of evidence for wine at Erimi in Cyprus, and it seems likely, the team agrees, “that wine production, viticulture and the domestication of the grape could have taken place independently in various parts of the grape vine’s natural distribution”.

Source: The Times

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