Grapes were first domesticated 11,000 years ago, says genetic study


When the last ice age ended and the glaciers retreated, about 11,000 years ago, something seems to have changed among the wild vines of Asia. They were domesticated. The first farmers on earth started growing the best vines with the biggest, juiciest grapes.

Wine and civilization soon followed.

That is the implication of a major research study, published Thursday in the journal Science, from an extensive collaboration between scientists from 17 nations. The team looked at genomes from thousands of vines collected from across the Eurasian landmass to trace the plant’s long and winding journey from the Stone Age to the neighborhood wine bar.

In the process, researchers came across previously undocumented cultivars growing in old vineyards, a discovery that allowed the explorers to name these overlooked or forgotten grape varieties.

The new work reinforces archaeological evidence that the development of agriculture was accompanied by an abundance of fermented beverages.

“The grape vine was probably the first fruit crop to be domesticated by man,” senior author Wei Chen, an evolutionary biologist at Yunnan Agricultural University, said in a media briefing on Thursday.

The research also carried a geopolitical message, showing scientific collaboration at its best amid turbulent times.

“I think our cooperation shows that we can achieve great things, just like the ancient people who traded grapes across borders,” Chen said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Chen said scientists in many nations had long explored when people began tinkering with wild vines to take advantage of those that produced the best fruit. But previous studies had been done in isolation and often contradict each other on the difficult question. Some estimates place domestication as far back as 15,000 years ago, well before the development of agriculture.

Chen persuaded colleagues from across Europe and Asia to collaborate, creating a genomic database from vines across a large region, from the Iberian Peninsula to Japan.

“We teamed up and researched what’s really going on with the evolution of grapes and the domestication of vines,” Chen said.

There are many species of vines, but only one, Vitis vinifera, delivers the wine recommended by a sommelier. The famous grapes that segment the wine market – merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir – are varieties of that species.

“We care so much about this grape that we gave each variety a specific name,” Chen said. “We don’t do that for, say, wheat or barley.”

There are still wild grapes with an ancient lineage, of the subspecies sylvestris. They tend to produce small grapes, few in number and bitter, but they are valuable to modern society because they contain genes that confer resistance to disease and climate change, said Peter Nick, co-author of the new study and a plant biologist. at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

“These wild grapes and these very old varieties still have these resistance genes, which we need to make the grapes resilient to the challenge of climate change,” said Nick.

Research into grape domestication has long been dominated by archaeologists, who say the story of that era through seeds and traces of wine in broken pottery. Prehistoric people had not yet invented writing, so the wine drinkers of 10 millennia ago did not leave behind vintage ratings or recommendations for which wine goes well with roast goat.

Genomic analysis represents a relatively new technique for penetrating the mists of prehistory – a period when the postglacial climate warmed, people increased in numbers and cultures flourished.

Domesticated grapes are hermaphroditic and can fertilize themselves. The analysis of modern plants and their genetic history showed a change in gene flow around 11,000 years ago that signaled a selection by early farmers for hermaphroditic vines.

But the new report has come up with a surprising twist on the story: Domestication happened twice, on different lineages of the wild grapes.

Both events occurred around the same time, one in the Caucasus region which includes modern-day Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and one in western Asia. The two regions are more than 600 miles apart. Chen noted that human migration, or cultural exchange, could explain the two separate domestications. In other words, good ideas go around.

The study authors believe that the Caucasus lineage of vines gave rise to those selected for their winemaking potential, while the West Asian lineage was originally selected as a food source – table grapes. Surprisingly, these table grapes were then mixed with wild grapes to create the wine-producing grapes found across much of Western Asia and Europe, including the famous wine regions along the Mediterranean.

The analysis cannot answer the question of when people began routinely fermenting grapes to make wine, Nick said. But around 11,000 years ago, he said, “people were intentionally growing vines, and not just gathering the berries in the forest.”

Archaeological evidence places the earliest known wine production around 8,000 years ago in what is now Georgia, in the Caucasus. And grape varieties were clearly carried over great distances, eventually leading to the abundance of wine varieties enjoyed by modern oenophiles.

“It was one of the first commodities to be traded globally. It’s fair to say that the domestication of vines was really one of the driving forces of civilization,” said Nick.

But Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and author of the book “Ancient Wine,” said in an email that the new research fails to prove that people had domesticated vines 11,000 years ago.

“Using and even ‘cultivating’ wild grapes for food and drink is one thing, but actually ‘domesticating’ the grape is quite another and much more difficult,” McGovern said in an email. “For that, convincing archaeological, archaeobotanical and/or chemical evidence is needed.”

He said that domesticating vines requires extensive horticultural skills.

“The combination of technological hurdles that must be overcome to ‘domesticate’ the vine or any fruit plant may explain why, of all the many grape species that grow throughout the world … only the Eurasian vine (Vitis vinifera), on current evidence, was domesticated in antiquity,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *