Earliest evidence of wine consumption in the Americas found in Caribbean

Scientists, including a University of Leicester archaeologist, have found what they believe to be the earliest known evidence of wine drinking in the Americas, inside ceramic artefacts recovered from a small Caribbean island. Forty ceramic sherds were examined in the first study to have used molecular analysis techniques – Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry - to investigate 15th century pottery from the Puerto Rico region.

The research focused on artefacts from the island of Isla de Mona, situated between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The findings, published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, address questions around dietary changes and cultural exchanges in the Greater Antilles prior to and after European arrival.

The study was led by the Dr Lisa Briggs, Visiting Researcher at the British Museum and 75th Anniversary Research Fellow at Cranfield University, alongside the University of Leicester. 

Dr Alice Samson, from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History, co-directs the fieldwork project on Isla de Mona in collaboration with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture.

Dr Samson said: “Colonialism completely changed what people consumed. This research is providing insights into the ways Indigenous Caribbean, Spanish and African foodways transformed in the early decades of the European invasion of the Americas. The wine also hints at new religious practices which mixed Catholic and Indigenous rituals.”

The analysis included sherds from a Spanish olive jar that could be dated between 1490-1520 AD. The rounded style of the jar shows it to be this early and aligns it to the timing of when Columbus first noted the existence of the island in his diary in 1494. 

The olive jar, used then as a general container for all sorts of food and liquid goods, transporting them on Spanish ships, had evidence of wine residues inside. 

“Whether consumed by Europeans or members of the indigenous population, this is direct evidence for the importation and drinking of European wine to a tiny island in the Caribbean shortly after the arrival of Spanish colonialists,” say the researchers.

Dr Briggs, lead scholar on the paper said: “Two culinary worlds collided in the Caribbean over 500 years ago, so uncovering the discoveries have been really exciting.

On excavating the site, scientists from the UK and Puerto Rico found many fish and meat bones – but crucially none were found inside cooking pots. Neither was there evidence of dairy or meat products preferred in contemporary European cuisines. Instead plant residues were found in both the local and imported ceramic vessels. This may imply that European colonialists quickly came to adopt and rely on indigenous culinary traditions, or that the pots were used to process plant foods to make things like cassava bread for export.