Ancient fish teeth reveal intensive 3,500-year-old aquaculture in Sinai

By studying chemical traits in the bones of gilthead seabream found in Israeli archaeological sites, scientists have unearthed the oldest known example of intensive fish farming

The gilthead seabream fish, known as "denise" in Hebrew. (Courtesy Haifa University)
The gilthead seabream fish, known as "denise" in Hebrew. (Courtesy Haifa University)

The gilthead seabream, known to fish-loving Israelis as the “denise” fish, is one of the tastiest and most popular species of fish currently being farmed in the eastern Mediterranean.

That may be why it was being intensively cultivated and shipped throughout the southeastern Mediterranean as early as 3,500 years ago, according to new research published last month in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Scientists at Haifa University led a research team that compared phosphate oxygen isotopes in the teeth of seabream bones found at archaeological sites in Israel dating from 10,000 years ago to about 1,400 years ago.

Their startling finding from the fish teeth: From about 3,500 years ago, nearly all the seabream being eaten in the land of Israel, whether along the coast in Tel Dor and Ashkelon, or inland at Hatzor and Jerusalem, came from a single place — the Bardawil lagoon on the Mediterranean coast of northern Sinai.

The discovery marks the oldest known evidence for aquaculture in the world.

Teeth and jawbones of the gilthead seabream fish (or “denise” in Hebrew) excavated from various archaeological sites throughout Israel. (Courtesy Haifa University)

The lagoon was created by the formation of sand breakers built up by the natural movement of currents eastward from the Nile delta. It is replenished with water from the surrounding Mediterranean through two small inlets, but the exchange of seawater is small enough to allow for the formation of a distinctive marine ecosystem.

This ecosystem’s most important attribute for the new research: The separation of the Bardawil lake from the rest of the Mediterranean allows for a higher rate of evaporation, making its waters saltier.

That higher salinity, in turn, can be read in the phosphate oxygen isotope balance in the teeth and jawbones of fish that are born and spend their lives in the lake.

Satellite image of Lake Bardawil in Egypt’s Sinai. (NASA/Wikipedia/Public Domain)

In other words, by carefully measuring the isotope balance in the teeth found at ancient cities in the land of Israel — the remains of fish that were eaten across some 10,000 years of history — the scientists have been able to determine the point at which systematic and large-scale aquaculture (or marine agriculture) of the seabream began.

At about 1,500 BCE, they discovered, the farming of seabream at Bardawil, which lies on the northern Sinai road between Egypt and Israel, took off and became the chief source of the beloved fish not only for inland cities, but even for coastal ones, possibly replacing their own domestic fishing industry.

Diagrams and photos of the gilthead seabream fish, known as “denise” in Hebrew, and the finding that many of the seabreams eaten in the land of Israel from 3,500 years ago and afterward mostly came from a single source, the Bardawil Lake off the coast of the northern Sinai. (Courtesy Haifa University)

That period also saw a stabilization in the size of the seabream being consumed in the land of Israel, the scientists report, a finding that further strengthens the case for the start of wide-scale aquaculture in the period. Fish consumed before 3,500 years ago came in many sizes, reflecting their ages and the various locations from which they were farmed. But once aquaculture was underway at Bardawil, it began producing consistent “plate-sized” fish weighing roughly 500 grams.

The research was led by Guy Sisma-Ventura of Haifa University’s National Institute of Oceanography, and included Haifa University archaeologists Ayelet Gilboa, Guy Bar-Oz and Omri Lernau, historian Dorit Sivan, Irit Zohar from Oranim College, and professors Andreas Pack of the University of Göttingen and Thomas Tütken of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

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