Grapevine Domestication: why, how and where?
In Search of the Grape's Fertile Triangle
Seriously, do you believe that Noah did plant vines on Mount Ararat?
Most ampelographers (gr. ampelos = grape, graphos = description), archaeologists, botanists and grape geneticists agree that the origins of viniculture (encompassing both viticulture and winemaking) are located in what I nickname the ‘Grape’s Fertile Triangle.’ This is a vast upland region between the Taurus Mountains (eastern Turkey), the northern Zagros Mountains (western Iran) and the Caucasus Mountains (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan).
According to the 1926 work of prominent Russian botanist and geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, the place where we can observe the highest biodiversity of a crop is usually its centre of origin. In 1938, his disciple Aleksandr Mikhailovich Negrul observed that the highest biodiversity in cultivated grapes was in today’s Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran, which makes them the best candidates for being the cradle(s) of viticulture.
A recent DNA quest for discovering where and when the wild Eurasian grape was first domesticated was baptised the ‘Noah Hypothesis’ by Prof. Patrick McGovern. This creates a parallel with the ‘Eve Hypothesis,’ which traces back humanity to a single ancestor through mitochondrial DNA analysis. It also gives a reference to Noah’s legend of planting the first vineyard on Mount Ararat (a volcanic dome in today’s Turkey on which Noah’s Ark is said to have run aground but where wild or cultivated grapes have never been observed).
Analysis of morphological similarities between the wild and cultivated grapes from all Eurasia generally support a geographical origin of grape domestication in the Near East. In 2004, I collaborated with Patrick McGovern to focus on the ‘Grape’s Fertile Triangle’ and our results showed that the closest genetic relationship between local wild grapevines and traditional cultivated grape varieties from southern Anatolia, Armenia and Georgia was observed in southern Anatolia. This suggests that the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Taurus Mountains is the most likely place where the grapevine was first domesticated!
This is consistent with the fact that this area of former Mesopotamia is still home to natural populations of wild grapevines. McGovern has reported abundant Neolithic (10,500-6,000 before present, BP) and Early Bronze Age (10,000-5000 BP) evidence for the presence of both wild and cultivated grapes in archaeological sites along the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, at the foot of the Taurus mountains.
This area also includes the Karacadağ region in the northern part of the Fertile Crescent. This region that has been recently recognised by archaeological and genetic studies to be the core centre of domestication of several founder crops of agriculture: einkorn wheat, pea, chickpea, lentils, emmer and rye.
The Anatolian Origin of the Word “Wine”
The northern part of the Fertile Crescent was also shown by glottochronology, the part of linguistics that deals with the chronological relationships between languages. This incredible research found this area to be the place of origin of all the Indo-European languages, which was called the ‘Anatolian Farming Hypothesis.’ It used unprecedented computational methods derived from evolutionary biology to reconstruct the hypothetical genealogical tree of languages. This was carried out by Australian researchers, and they provided compelling clues that all Indo-European languages have stemmed some 8,700 years ago from Hittite, an extinct language of southeast Anatolia!
Indo-European languages will then have expanded from southeast Anatolia some 9,500-8,000 years ago along with the spread of agriculture. This speaks in favour of the Fertile Crescent as the cradle of modern civilization. It seems that all conditions were met in south eastern Anatolia for successfully engendering grape domestication and early winemaking.
In addition, a closer look at the word for ‘wine’ in the major Indo-European languages that were involved in early viniculture shows that they all derive from the common Proto-Indo-European (the language allegedly spoken by early populations of Transcaucasia and eastern Anatolia) root *woi-no or *win-o or *wie-no. However, non-Indo-European languages like Kartvelian (Georgian and Mingrelian), Semitic (Akkadian, Ugaritic and Early Hebrew) and Semito-Hamitic (old Egyptian) all point to an even more ancient and unknown common root, and no clear linguistic connection between these language groups could be proposed.
Nevertheless, some Georgian scholars have claimed that the oldest root for the word ‘wine’ is the Kartvelian ɣvino, still used today in modern Georgian. This would constitute an indisputable evidence that Georgia is the cradle of viniculture…
Future Developments: “Palaeogenomics”
Although genetics, archaeology and linguistics tend to point to southern Anatolia as the possible cradle of grape domestication, Transcaucasia still remains a serious candidate: ancient grape remains were excavated from Neolithic archaeological sites in Chokh in Dagestan, in Shomu-Tepe in Azerbaijan as well as in Shulaveris-Gora (near Tbilisi) in Georgia, and chemical evidence was recently provided for wine production in Areni wine region (south east of Yerevan) in Armenia around 6,000 BP.
In 2019, a fascinating study set a new benchmark in the analysis of archaeological plant remains. Using a powerful method of DNA sequencing on grape remains dating back to around 1100 AD and found near Orléans (France), researchers were able to prove that the French variety Savagnin Blanc has been cultivated continuously for at least 900 years. In the future, let’s hope that this highly promising technique called “palaeogenomics” will enable us to shed a new light on the location of the cradle of viticulture.