Mediterranean Cultures Imported Asian Exotic Foods Before 1700 BC

The remains of exotic foods, spices and oils discovered on the calculus of ancient teeth discovered around the Mediterranean have been analyzed revealing new insights into the ancient Bronze Age food trade between Asia and the Levant. Turmeric, bananas, soy and other exotic Asian foods and spices reached the Mediterranean more than 3000 years ago, according to a new  paper by a team of international researchers at the University of Munich (LMU). Studying long-distance trade routes between Asia and the Levant during the Bronze Age, the team set out to discover if exotic foods were also exchanged, and they discovered that hugely distant societies were connected much earlier than previously thought.

Using Ancient Teeth From Israel To Prove Exotic Foods Trade

Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC) and Early Iron Age (starting from 1200 BC)  dental calculus  was gathered from the teeth of skeletons unearthed in the  Southern Levant . The remains of dietary plant micro-remains and proteins in the teeth matrixes were analyzed and revealed that early Mediterranean cultures consumed exotic foods from South and East Asia during the second millennium BC, including “sesame, soybean, probable banana, and turmeric.”

Professor Philipp Stockhammer and his multidisciplinary international team of scientists analyzed the microscopic food residues found in tooth tartar to discovered ancient people in the Levant were consuming  turmeric, bananas, and soy in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. This finding, according to Stockhammer, dates the trade connection between the  Near East  and Middle East to “millennia, earlier than had been previously thought.”

The Megiddo archaeological site in Israel provided some of the ancient teeth that proved the Southern Levant was importing exotic foods like bananas, soy, and turmeric from South East Asia as early as 3700 years ago. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Megiddo archaeological site in Israel provided some of the ancient teeth that proved the Southern Levant was importing exotic foods like bananas, soy, and turmeric from South East Asia as early as 3700 years ago. (Yoli Schwartz /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

The New Evidence For Long-Distance Trade In Exotic Foods

The results of the new study, published in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , present the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana, and soy outside of South and East Asia. The paper reports on the analysis of 16 people’s teeth from the  Megiddo and Tel Erani excavations in present-day Israel (Southern Levant), which in the Bronze Age served as an important link connecting the Mediterranean,  Asia and Egypt. The ancient proteins and plant microfossils found in the tooth calculus “enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” says Stockhammer, in a new discipline of analysis called “Palaeoproteomics.”

Co-senior author of the article,  Christina Warinner , a molecular archaeologist at  Harvard University  and the  Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History , told  PNAS that this new research demonstrates “the great potential of these methods to detect foods that otherwise leave few archaeological traces. Dental calculus is such a valuable source of information about the lives of ancient peoples.” And lead author, Ashley Scott, another LMU biochemist, is quoted in  Archaeology News Network  as saying the new approach, “Palaeoproteomics, breaks new scientific ground.”

Dr Ianir Milevski of the Israel Antiquities Authority on site at Tel Erani, Israel. Dr Milevski was involved in the latest study on the ancient trade in exotic foods to the Southern Levant from South East Asia. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Dr Ianir Milevski of the Israel Antiquities Authority on site at Tel Erani, Israel. Dr Milevski was involved in the latest study on the ancient trade in exotic foods to the Southern Levant from South East Asia. (Yoli Schwartz /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

Tracking Ancient Diets, Trade Routes With Palaeoproteomics

Palaeoproteomics involves looking at allergy-associated  proteins that are related to the thermostability of many allergens, says Scott. Applying this method of analysis, the team was able to identify wheat by reading the signatures of wheat gluten proteins and then independently confirming the finding using a type of plant microfossils known as “ phytoliths.” Phytoliths were also used to identify millet and date palm in the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. In the same way,  sesame proteins were identified in the dental calculus from both the Megiddo and Tel Erani archaeological sites, said Scott.

In one individual’s dental calculus from Megiddo, turmeric and soy proteins were found. And at the Tel Erani site, dental calculus containing banana residue was found. Bananas are known to have been domesticated in Southeast Asia from the 5th millennium BC onward.

While hard evidence of the long-distance trade in exotic foods was presented in the new study, the extent to which these spices, oils and fruits were imported into the Levant is still unclear.

However, the team set out to clarify if the early globalization of trade networks in the 2nd millennium BC also included exotic foods. They discovered that there already existed a flourishing long-distance trade route between South Asia and the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt in the 2nd millennium BC.

In conclusion, the researchers confirmed that exotic fruits, spices, and oils were on the inventory lists of long-distance traders since at least the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC). 

Top image: Seeds and spices on display in the Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Based on the conclusions from the latest study, the Southern Levant were already importing exotic foods, like bananas, sesame, and turmeric, from South East Asia 3700 years ago, much earlier than previously thought.  Source:  RiCi / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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