Wine-grape seeds excavated in the Negev share genetic links to modern varieties still in use today, a recent study in the pnas (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) journal has found. This collaborative effort was led by the paleogenomic laboratory of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa, with help from research institutions in France, Denmark and the UK.
Dr. Meirav Meiri, one of the co-leads of the study, said: “The science of [paleogenomics] uses a range of advanced technologies to analyze ancient genomes, primarily from archaeological findings. Since the dna molecule is very sensitive and disintegrates over time, especially under high temperatures, we usually get only small pieces of dna, often in a poor state of preservation.” He continued, “The wonderful thing about paleogenetics is that sometimes, tiny items can tell a big story. This is exactly what happened in this study. With just a bit of dna extracted from two grape seeds we were able to trace continuity in the local wine industry—from the Byzantine period, more than a thousand years ago, to the present day.”
One find in particular drew a lot of interest: A large hoard of grape seeds were discovered on the floor of a sealed room. This protected them from the elements and allowed researchers to analyze well-preserved specimens.
One of the high-quality seed specimens was discovered to belong to the “Syriki” variety, a well-known variety cultivated in the Middle East and Mediterranean—it is still used today to make high-quality red wine in Greece (where it is known to have arrived from the east) and in Lebanon.
Wine grapes are often named after their place of origin, and “Syriki” is theorized to be derived from the name of an important stream in the Judean Hills, Nahal Sorek.
This name could hint to origins stemming from the biblical period. Genesis 49:11 states, “Binding his foal unto the vine, And his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; He washeth his garments in wine, And his vesture in the blood of grapes.” The term “choice vine” is from the Hebrew שׂרֵק, or Sorek, which could indicate the origins of the grapevines.
Numbers 13:23-24 record the following about the richness of grapes in the Promised Land: “And they came unto the valley of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bore it upon a pole between two; they took also of the pomegranates, and of the figs.—That place was called the valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster which the children of Israel cut down from thence.”
The press release highlights that Nahal Sorek is identified by some to be the Valley of Eshkol, again potentially connecting the origins of these Byzantine-era grape seeds to the grapevines mentioned in the biblical account.
An additional interesting discovery: Another seed was identified to be related to Be’er. This is a white wine-grape variety which grows in the sands of Palmachim on Israel’s seashore and is common in the land of Israel. The genome study was able to identify the color of the fruit to verify it was indeed a white grape seed, which makes it the oldest botanical specimen of its kind identified.