Anthropologist Patrick McGovern, at the University of Pennsylvania, has been pursuing the origins of wine for many years, and that search took him to the mountainous areas east of the Black Sea, in what is today Georgia, Armenia, and Iran.
"Everything pointed to that region as the area to investigate," he says.
This is where the ancestors of today's wine grapes first grew wild. And ancient writings from civilizations that emerged in this region show that wine was already an established part of the culture thousands of years ago. "Judaism, Christianity, and even Islam, all have wine incorporated into them, and that goes back very early," McGovern says.
In Georgia, McGovern joined forces with David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum.
"Wine was always our identity," Lordkipanidze says. Many Georgians have long believed that their tradition of winemaking is the oldest on the planet. But Lordkipanidze wanted to back up that pride with scientific evidence.
He invited a team of scientists from all over the world to take a fresh look at two very old archaeological sites in Georgia.
The researchers, including Patrick McGovern, analyzed pottery from those sites and found traces of substances, like tartaric acid, that are the chemical fingerprint of grapes. "If we see the tartaric acid, that shows that we have wine or a grape product," McGovern says. The researchers are reporting their discovery this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The oldest of these jars came from 8,000 years ago. It's the earliest artifact ever found showing humans consuming juice from the Eurasian grapes that are the foundation of today's wine industry.
One of these ancient jars, McGovern says, has a design on it that seems like a celebration of wine: "People under a trellis grapevine, dancing."
McGovern says one moment from this investigation sticks with him. He'd spent a day at the museum in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, studying this jar, "and then I come home at night, and I have my glass of wine in one hand, and I'm looking out at this public building, and there's essentially the same scene right across the street from me." On that building, he saw that same motif of people dancing under grapevines, bringing together past and present.
Georgia still has a big wine industry. David Lordkipanidze says this discovery is an opportunity for his country's wine industry, "to show that it is not only old, but is also good."