When does the history of wine in America begin? Most of us think of Spanish missionaries, a smattering of Virginians and Thomas Jefferson "pioneering" viticulture, or attempting to. But intriguing new research from archaeological sites in central Texas is the first to suggest that, actually, indigenous Americans were making grape wine more than 500 years ago, before European colonists brought their guns, germs and vines over. Recent analysis of chemical residue on pottery found at six sites turned up evidence of caffeinated beverages—and suggested the presence of grape wine.
“I am incredibly excited by this discovery,” Dr. Crystal Dozier, an anthropological archaeologist and assistant professor at Wichita State University, told Unfiltered via email. “This is brand new knowledge about indigenous Native Americans—specifically what they were drinking over 500 years ago.” Dozier's findings were published last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports under the title “Chemical Residue Evidence in Leon Plain Pottery from the Toyah Phase (1300-1650 C.E.) in the American Southern Plains,” co-authored with Drs. Doyong Kim and David Russell.
Dozier's forays into the search for the origins of American wine began with previous research that suggested indigenous peoples in what's now Texas were gathering for feasts and leaving behind pottery, an unexpected activity for nomadic hunter-gatherers, during what scholars call the Toyah Phase; those revelers are thought to be ancestors to tribes like the Lipan Apache. But what was on the drinks list?
Dozier had read several accounts from Spanish explorers of “wild” grapes grown in pre-conquest America (no Hill Country Cabernet, then). “But no mention of winemaking by Native Americans,” she noted. “This context made me want to discover and discern what exactly indigenous people were preparing in [their] pottery.”
Dozier and her team examined 54 pottery sherds uncovered at the six Toyah-era sites, analyzing microscopic chemical residue and hoping the cups would runneth over with anthropological answers. Chemical analysis revealed evidence of a caffeinated beverage in some samples, and in others, tartaric and succinic acids, both commonly found together in grapes, but hardly in any other fruits at the same time and at that high level of concentration (“excepting star fruit, which is native to Southeast Asia," said Dozier).
The caffeine probably came from either a chocolate-y cacao drink or, more likely, from the regional “black drink,” a tea made from the Yaupon holly plant. If the Toyah Texas-dwellers were indeed drinking tea and wine, Dozier offers the idea that the drinks were made and poured for special or ceremonial occasions, based on the use of ceramic vessels. And that the Toyah cultures, perhaps, drank local and lived off the terroir: A grapeseed was found at one of the sites.
“This is the first archaeological chemical evidence suggestive of [grape wine's] indigenous production in the Americas, although certainly not conclusive,” wrote the researchers in their published findings. The implications could be huge, but further study is needed; Dozier told us she plans to use DNA analysis to figure out the vine(s) behind the wine, and to scour more pottery samples, at more sites, for other residues. “We could potentially tell if Native Americans were making red or white wine in the process.” They might even be able to tell some characteristics of the wine. And they could prove the "New World” was neither invented by Europeans ... nor even very new at all.
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