Sweeter Than Wine? the Use of the Grape in Early Western Asia

By Miller, Naomi E. | Antiquity, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Sweeter Than Wine? the Use of the Grape in Early Western Asia


Miller, Naomi E., Antiquity


Introduction

Evidence for the origin and spread of the grape (Vitis vinifera) in western Asia comes from a variety of sources, on- and off-site: pollen cores, residue analysis, archaeological seeds, stems, and fruit remains as well as charred wood of the vine. This paper is an attempt to explain the observation that despite remarkably early residue evidence for wine in the Neolithic (mid-sixth millennium BC, McGovern et al. 1996), other evidence for grapes (pollen from flowers, along with fruits, seeds, stems and wood) does not become common in the archaeological record until 3000 years later, the Early Bronze Age (third millennium BC) (Zohary & Hopf 1994). The goal is to understand the processes behind early exploitation of the vine (Tables 1 and 2).

The area of study is the phytogeographical region classified as the Caspian and Black Sea temperate forest, the Mediterranean coastal woodland and steppe-forest, the Kurdo-Zagrosian oak and pistachio-almond steppe forest, and Syrian steppe (see Zohary 1973) (Figure 1). With the exception of the temperate forest zone, this region coincides with the parts of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran that were home to the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age cultures of the ancient Near East. The first evidence for grape wine production in this region dates to the mid-sixth millennium BC; by the mid-fifth millennium the vine had come under cultivation, and the domesticated forms appeared somewhat later.

The present-day distribution of the wild ancestor of the European wine grape (Vitis vinifera var. sylvestris) was established during the early to mid-Holocene (beginning 11 500 cal BP). It covers a band across western Eurasia from the Mediterranean to the Caspian, in areas characterised by mountain and Mediterranean scrub vegetation. Over most of its range, annual precipitation exceeds 600mm, bur in drier regions it also grows in riparian and moister habitats (Zohary, M. 1973; Zohary, D. 1994). The present zone of wild grape is probably not identical to that of the mid-Holocene, but it should not be that different. It is likely that grape was domesticated in western Asia towards the eastern end of this region (Figure 2).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The wild ancestor of the grape is distinguished from the domestic variety (Vitis vinifera var. vinifera) by a relatively simple genetic change. The wild form is dioecious (male and female flowers are produced by male and female plants). The domestic form usually has hermaphroditic flowers (each flower has fertile stamens and pistils). Hermaphroditism permits self-pollination of domestic types, which fixes desirable traits. Once a variety with such traits is recognised, it can be reproduced with cuttings or layering (and in later times, grafting of cuttings onto pre-existing rootstock). Genetic crossing among wild, domestic and fetal types makes it difficult to untangle both the early and later history of the many cultivars (see Zohary & Hopf 1994). In the discussion to follow, I use the term cultivation to refer to planting the vine for grape production, using cuttings or seed. Domestication refers to selecting and propagating hermaphroditic plants with desirable traits. Knowledge of grape cultivation necessarily preceded its domestication (i.e. expanding the population of hermaphroditic vines relative to dioecious ones), because grape seeds are so variable that it would not be possible to produce a new plant by seed with the same characteristics as its parent. At the present time the wild or cultivated status of archaeological remains of grape cannot be distinguished.

Given the normal variability of fruit produced by wild plants and the human ability to observe the natural world, people would have known which specimens in their neighbourhoods had useful traits, and may well have protected them. Initially sweetness may have been appreciated, but was not necessary; even wild grapes can be fermented for wine. …

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