Taming the Grapevine

Scientists collaborating across the globe have unlocked a new, astounding origin story for wine grapes, pushing back the domestication of Vitis vinifera, the grape species used for most winemaking, to more than 11,000 years ago. The findings suggest humans domesticated grapevines around the same time period they domesticated the first cereal plants.

“The grapevine was probably the first fruit crop domesticated by humans,” said Wei Chen, an evolutionary biologist at Yunnan Agricultural University in China and a member of the study team.

Chen was speaking via videoconference, along with the study’s lead author, Yang Dong, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington, D.C., last week. They were presenting the results of the extensive study, undertaken by 89 researchers from over a dozen countries. The team sequenced 3,525 grapevine variety genomes, taking samples from private collections, research institutes, vineyards and fields in Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Asia. They studied both Vitis vinifera and its progenitor, the wild Vitis sylvestris.

The dawn of farming

Until now, archaeological evidence suggested humans first domesticated grapes in the Caucasus Mountains—modern-day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan—roughly 8,000 years ago, and that grapegrowing and winemaking spread from there around the world.

But the genetic record pushed the date back to 11,000 years ago, early in the current geological period: the Holocene. Previous timeline theories were determined by the archeological record, rather than evolutionary genetics. Now we can place winegrowing right around the advent of farming.

The second major news is that there wasn’t one sole origin event all those years ago, when humans began cultivating vines. “There are two domestication events that occurred at the same time,” said Dong. These two locations for domestication were the south Caucasus and the western part of the Middle East—modern-day Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Jordan. The Vitis sylvestris grapevines that were domesticated in those locations, some 600 miles apart, were two genetically distinct populations of the wild plant, having been separated during the last glacial advance, allowing the researchers to distinguish between them.

While we don’t know who these early grapegrowers were, or how the two farmer populations related to one another, archeologists do know that these people traveled, as evidence shows the movement of shells and obsidian between populations. Did ideas travel too?

“It’s not like someone had the idea to domesticate grapes,” evolutionary genetics professor Robin Allaby, of the University of Warwick in England, told Wine Spectator. “It’s more the way they treated the landscape gave rise to grape domestication. Practices in that sense could have been exchanged, but it wouldn’t have been quite, ‘Hey, we have this great new thing called grapes. Why don’t you try this?’”

Allaby cautioned that domestication (the biological change in the grapevine) was a process that happened over thousands of years. “People have been interacting with plants for a long, long time,” said Allaby. “We can see from the selection pressures that although more than 11,000 years ago is when domesticates appear and start to look different in the archeological record, the selection pressures involved actually have to theoretically go back quite a long time before then—we’re talking thousands and thousands of years before.”

It started with hunter-gatherers foraging for wild plants, then tending wild plants for fruit, followed by more intensive cultivation such as tillage and planting seeds, until they were finally farming domesticated plants.

Archaeobotanical evidence shows that grapes were already one of the annual plants exploited by people living in the Levant. At Ohalo II, a prehistoric settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee dating back 23,000 years ago,…

Source : https://www.winespectator.com/articles/taming-the-grapevine

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