Museum scientists discovered that fossil grape seeds from India are almost 10 million years older than those from Europe and North America. Researchers are using CT scans to learn more about the species and its past migrations between India and other continents.
Thinking about vintage grapes might conjure up images of fine wineries and vineyards of Europe, Australia or California, but few people realize that the oldest-known grapes were growing in central India long before any humans existed. These fossil grapes were dug from sediments that also contain fragments of dinosaur eggshells, indicating an age of about 66 million years.
I was amazed when I first identified these specimens at the details they still show. The fossil grapes, with their seeds still intact, were preserved in minerals that deposited in swampy sediments around the time of massive lava flows that erupted in India when that landmass was still an island far to the south of present-day Asia. Other fossils, such as palms and woods without growth rings from the same deposit, indicate an equatorial tropical climate.
The later collision of the Indian subcontinent with Eurasia, which caused the uplift of the Himalaya Mountains, may have introduced grapes to the Northern Hemisphere where they are known from numerous younger fossil seeds and of course many species still living today.
The seeds of grapes are very distinctive. Have a look the next time you eat a grape ‑ provided that it is not one of those inferior seedless grapes! The seeds are rounded triangular, with a pair of grooves on the front side and an oval ridge on the backside. These features allow us to identify fossils to the grape family, but slight differences lead us to interpret the India fossils to represent an extinct genus of the family.
Florida Museum of Natural History
World’s Oldest Grape Fossil (Indovitis chitaleyae)
Lived ~66 million years ago (Cretaceous)
This scan explores the fossil: