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Sipping History

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By Randi Schmelzer

Published Apr 1, 2011 8:00 AM


Who says drinking and thinking don't mix? A group of scholars thirsty for knowledge and led by an intrepid Bruin professor have uncovered the world's oldest winery — dating all the way back to about 4100 B.C. The fruits of their labor, however, do more than bring new meaning to "old vine." They also reveal an alternative path of human development.

Buried within the Areni-1 cave complex near the Armenia-Iran border, the fully equipped winery predates the earliest comparable discovery by 1,000 years, says Gregory Areshian, assistant director of UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and co-director of the excavation.

art

Illustration by Gilbert Ford

The international team of researchers, partially supported by the National Geographic Society, was co-directed by Armenia-based archaeologist Boris Gasparyan, a former professor of Areshian's.

The facility was unearthed gradually over a 3 1/2-year period, and from ancient grape seeds to an 11-gallon fermentation vat to an animal-horn cup, the site contained everything needed to produce and consume wine. The team also found the remains of pressed grapes, dozens of desiccated vines, and grape seeds of the same domesticated variety used today to make wine.

While the discovery is toast-worthy, Areni-1 wine was never served in celebration.

"The cave complex was used as a cemetery," Areshian explains. Surrounded by hundreds of graves, the well preserved wine facility is just yards from equally well preserved "organics" including bones, bodies — and headless human sacrifices.

The discovery's implications go beyond those of interest to wine/grape/raisin historians. While the focus of early agriculture was on basic staples like wheat and barley, a much more sophisticated knowledge level is required for grape cultivation.

"The find essentially speaks of a very high development of agriculture and advanced gardening," Areshian says. Also of significance, their substantial use of metal shows that Areni-1 winemakers had a higher standard of living compared to most contemporaneous cultures.

This social complexity challenges established archaeological ideas, which look at the Mesopotamian model of urbanism, Areshian contends.

"Here we have a totally different trajectory of very advanced society," he says. "It tells us that in order to understand human evolution on the local scale, we can't focus exclusively on one single line of development."

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