Vitis spp. L.


       Grapes are fleshy fruits grown widely around the world. This commercially important genus includes several cultivated species, most notably Vitis vinifera ssp. vinifera (the wine grape, indigenous to Europe) and Vitis labruscana (the Fox Grape, including the Concord Grape variety, native to the eastern United States). Grapes grow widely in North America east of the Rockies, and were certainly utilized as a food source in prehistoric times, although they are not documented as having been cultivated in eastern North America by any native peoples. Grape seeds are, however, fairly ubiquitous in archaeological assemblages across eastern North American.

       Grape seeds are very distinctive, with several unique features (see Figure 1). The two fossetes (long grooves) on the ventral side and the chalaza (spoon-shaped structure) on the dorsal side are characteristic of the family Vitaceae, but are most pronounced in Vitis species. Different Vitis species have a variety of fruit and seed sizes, but most seeds are between 4 and 7 mm in length and 3 and 4 mm in width (Steyermark 1963:1035-1041). The number of seeds per fruit varies between species, from one to three or more seeds per fruit.
       Identification of well-preserved Vitis seeds in archaeological assemblages should be relatively easy. Although many species of grape may be present in an area (for example, seven species are native to Missouri), there are clear morphological differences in the position and size of the chalaza and fossetes for each species. For instance, the fossetes of V. riparia curve slightly inward and are set wide apart, while those of V. aestivalis are straight and closer together, as well as slightly deeper. The chalazae are similar in these two species, although those of V. aestivalis are more sharply defined and very uniform, while those of V.  riparia vary somewhat in shape between seeds. These characters should allow identification of Vitis seeds to at least a small group of species.
       Concern has arisen (Lopinot 1982) that other Vitaceae species, particularly Ampelopsis cordata (Raccoon Grape) and Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper), might be mistaken for Vitis seeds. This is possible with small seed fragments showing only a small portion of the chalaza or fossetes, but entire Ampelopsis (Figure 2) or Parthenocissus (Figure 3) seeds are quite distinct from Vitis species. Ampelopsis seeds have very broad and shallow fossetes and nearly invisible chalazae. Parthenocissus seeds are sharply angled and almost triangular in cross section, as opposed to the oval shape characteristic of Vitis seeds, with narrow fossetes and a very shallow chalaza.

Archaeological Distribution
       Grape seeds have been recovered from a large number of prehistoric sites across eastern North America, from Pennsylvania to Iowa and Louisiana to Michigan (Cutler and Blake 1976). They appear in samples from all time periods, from the Early Woodland into the historic period. Paleofecal specimens from Salts and Mammoth Cave provide direct evidence of grape consumption by prehistoric peoples in the Early Woodland period (Stewart 1974:44-47). Grape seeds are very common in Illinois in Late Woodland assemblages (Lopinot 1982). In the Late Stirling phase (c.1150 AD) at Cahokia, “wild grape is represented most frequently in samples from internal pit and structural features” (Lopinot 1991:119), perhaps indicating that grapes were stored, presumably dried, for later use.

The Modern Plant and its Distribution
       Grape plants are vines, with distinctive simple, palmate, toothed leaves (Figure 4). Most species flower from May to June, and fruit from August to October. Vitis species grow in a variety of habitats, from dry rocky upland woods and glades (Vitis aestivalis) to low woods and alluvial soils (Vitis riparia). The modern distribution of Vitis species includes the entirety of North America east of the Rockies and south of the Great Lakes, although a greater number of species are native to the southern United States.Vitis labruscana and Vitis vinifera can be found escaped from cultivation throughout much of the world.

       Grapes are important today as an edible fruit and as a source for wine. Historically, they were eaten fresh or dried for later use throughout eastern North America (Yanovsky 1936:42-3). Grapes were also used as a source of dye (Asch et al. 1972), and the sap was used to prepare a beverage by Indians of the Missouri River (King 1984). Vitis stems were used as cordage by Indians of the southern states in the historic period, and the Ojibwa used the roots and branches of Vitis for pulmonary troubles (Yanovsky 1936). Of the seven species of grape native to Missouri, only V. riparia is sour in taste, and V. rotundifolia is documented as having been eaten by historic Indians (Steyermark 1963:1035-1041). Grapes can easily be collected and dried for use during the winter months, and as such were likely an important food year-round, explaining their ubiquity in archaeological contexts. It is likely that most Vitis seeds found in archaeological assemblages represent use of grapes as a food source, either fresh or dried, although grapes were clearly used for other economic and medicinal purposes as well.

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Written by: Mac Marston