A prehistoric wine found in an inaccessible cave forces a rethinking of ancient Sicilian cultures

The caves at Monte Kronio have been visited by people since 8,000 B.C. The vessels left behind date from the Copper Age, which lasted between the early sixth millennium B.C. and the early third millennium B.C. As well as a variety of sizes of ceramic storage containers, jugs, and basins. These artifacts are sometimes found in the deepest caverns of the mountain, along with human skeletons.

Archaeologists discuss what religious practices these artifacts may be evidence of. Worshipers gave their lives to bring offerings in order to appease a mysterious god who exhaled gasses within Monte Kronio. Or did they bury important people in this special place, near what was likely considered to be a source of magical power?

What was inside these vessels? This has always been one of the biggest mysteries surrounding this prehistoric site. What was so valuable that it could be used to appease a god or accompany warriors and chiefs who were dead on their journey into the underworld?

My analysis of tiny samples scraped off these ancient artifacts revealed a surprising result: wine. This discovery will have a major impact on the way archaeologists describe the lives of the people living in ancient times.

Analyzing scrapings samples

Monte Kronio’s recesses are home to mysterious storage jars with their contents. Davide Tanasi et al. 2017, CC BY-ND

In November 2012, a team consisting of geographers, speleologists, and expert geographers entered the dangerous underground complex of Monte Kronio. The crew escorted the archaeologists of the Superintendence Agrigento to descend more than 300 feet in order to collect samples and document artifacts. Scientists scraped off the powder from five ceramic vessels by scraping their inner walls.

I was part of an international team that hoped to shed light on the original contents of these Monte Kronio Copper Age containers by analyzing the dark brown residue. We planned to use the latest chemical techniques to analyze the organic residue.

We chose to use three approaches. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy would tell us about the chemical and physical properties of the molecules and atoms present. Scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-ray spectrum and attenuated-total-reflectance Fourier-transform infrared-spectroscopy were used for the elemental analyses – chemical characterization.

The tiny samples scraped off the ancient vessels were irreversible. 

When we perform the tests, we use up all of the samples. We only had 100 mg of powder per vessel, so we had to be very careful when preparing the samples. We couldn’t run the analysis again if we made a mistake.

Four of the five large storage jars from the Copper Age contained organic residue. We found that two of the five large storage jars contained animal fats, while another had plant residues. This was due to the semi-liquid stew we guessed the jars were absorbing. The fourth jar, however, held the biggest surprise: grape wine dating back 5,000 years.

The presence of wine is a sign of much more than just drinking.

Initially, I didn’t fully understand the significance of this discovery. Only after I reviewed the scientific literature about alcoholic beverages from prehistory did I realize that the Monte Kronio samples were the oldest wines known for Europe and the Mediterranean. It was a huge surprise, given that Southern Anatolia & Transcaucasian regions were believed to be the birthplace of grape domestication & early viticulture. The end of 2017 research using Neolithic Ceramic samples from Georgia has pushed the discovery of pure grape wines back even further to 6,000-5800 B.C.

The news headlines conveying the idea of “oldest wine,” captured the attention of the public when we published our first results.

What the media did not convey was the enormous historical implications of such a find for archaeologists’ understanding of Copper Age Sicilian culture.

The evidence of wine suggests that grapevines were being cultivated in this place and time. Viticulture is dependent on specific terrains, climates, and irrigation systems. Archaeologists have not yet included all of these agricultural strategies in their theories on settlement patterns for these Copper Age Sicilian Communities. Researchers need to consider more closely how these people may have altered the landscapes in which they lived.

Archaeologists now know more about the commerce and trade in goods that took place across the entire Mediterranean during this period, thanks to the discovery of wine. Sicily, for example, has no metal ores. The discovery of copper artifacts like daggers and chisels, as well as pins at various sites, shows that Sicilians somehow developed metallurgy during the Copper Age.

Traditional explanations have been that Sicily had a commercial relationship in its infancy with people from the Aegean Sea, particularly with the northwestern Peloponnese. It doesn’t make sense because the Sicilian people didn’t offer much in return for the metals. The lure of wine was what attracted the Aegeans to Sicily.

The discovery of wine residues in gaseous crevices within Monte Kronio supports the theory that the mountain served as a prehistoric sanctuary, where rituals of purification and oracles were performed, taking advantage of the cleansing properties of sulfur.

Since its first appearance in Homeric stories, wine has been regarded as a magical substance. Its red color, similar to blood, had the power to induce euphoria as well as altered states of consciousness and perception. It’s easy for you to imagine that the physical stress of the hot, humid climate combined with the descent to Monte Kronio was a journey to the gods. The trip likely ended in death for those who were weak. For the survivors, it may have been a spiritual experience that would last forever.

All of this is written on the 100 milligrams grains of 6,000-year-old powder.

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