Dig in: Mediterranean diet first appeared in the Jordan Valley, 7,500 years ago
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With the rise of elite classes, hunting ceases

Dig in: Mediterranean diet first appeared in the Jordan Valley, 7,500 years ago

New research based on archaeological evidence from Tel Tsaf prehistoric site shows humans in the region ate a lot like your doctor's heart-healthy recommendations

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Excavation of a 7,200-year-old level at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley, July 2018. (courtesy)
    Excavation of a 7,200-year-old level at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley, July 2018. (courtesy)
  • 7,200-year-old animal figurine discovered at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley, July 2018. (courtesy)
    7,200-year-old animal figurine discovered at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley, July 2018. (courtesy)
  • 7,000-year-old BBQ remains discovered at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley in July 2018. (courtesy)
    7,000-year-old BBQ remains discovered at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley in July 2018. (courtesy)
  • Pieces of pottery with unique decoration and wood branches from Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley that were discovered in July 2018. (courtesy)
    Pieces of pottery with unique decoration and wood branches from Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley that were discovered in July 2018. (courtesy)

Roots of the popular Mediterranean diet reached 7,500-years-ago, according to new archaeological evidence found at the prehistoric settlement of Tel Tsaf, in Israel’s Jordan Valley. Archaeologists have recently discovered remains of foodstuffs, consisting mainly of beans, olives, wheat, barley and domesticated meat.

The remains of the meat were uncovered in a barbecue pit during the 2018 summer dig season.

According to Prof. Danny Rosenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, this “barbecue” may be evidence of communal festive events in which the meat was roasted.

The people there clearly went whole hog: an almost complete skeleton of an entire pig was also discovered, indicating it was also part of the local diet.

The Mediterranean diet’s rise, said Rosenberg, coincides with a new elite class of settlers, as well as the cessation of hunting.

7,200-year-old animal figurine discovered at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley, July 2018. (courtesy)

“A thousand years earlier, the flesh of hunted animals is still a major component of our ancestors’ diet. A few hundred years later, we already find evidence that hunting is becoming more marginal,” he said.

“Here, at Tel Tsaf, we are are discovering the moment 7,500 years ago, when here, in the growing rural communities, hunting dissipates — just before the emergence of the largest cultures in the region,” said Rosenberg.

The researchers found almost no remains of meat obtained from hunting, but did find botanical evidence, including olive seeds, wheat, barley and other legumes.

“As the companies become more and more complex, they begin to produce most of their own food, and no longer rely on hunting and gathering,” said Rosenberg.

7,000-year-old BBQ remains discovered at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley in July 2018. (courtesy)

Settlement at Tel Tsaf, near the Jordan River and the modern state of Jordan, dates to circa 5200-4700 BCE. The site was initially identified in the 1940s during a Beit She’an Valley archaeological survey.

The first detailed excavation took place from 1978-1980, when findings from deep probe trenches suggested that there were two occupation periods at the site: the Pottery Neolithic period and the Early Chalcolithic period. Another set of excavations was undertaken in earnest between 2004 and 2007, and uncovered evidence of Middle and Early Late Chalcolithic settlement.

The current dig began in 2013 as a joint multidisciplinary project between the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa and the Eurasian Department of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, under the leadership of Rosenberg and Dr. Florian Klimsha.

Pieces of pottery with unique decoration and wood branches from Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley that were discovered in July 2018. (courtesy)

Previous years’ dig seasons have unearthed an array of impressive, if at times puzzling, objects. Relics made of obsidian — a volcanic glass from Anatolia or Armenia — shells from the Nile River in Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean Basin, figurines of people and animals, and pottery seen almost nowhere else in the region were found there.

In 2014, archaeologists unearthed a 7,000-year-old copper awl, one of the earliest metal object yet found in the Middle East. According to The Times of Israel report on the find, “The discovery of the tiny awl in the ruins of an ancient village near the Jordanian border pushes back by several hundred years the date peoples of the southern Levant are thought to have started using metal.”

Haifa University Prof. Danny Rosenberg holds the 7,200-year-old model clay grain silo found at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley. (Haifa University)

In 2017, Rosenberg published the find of a cult object, which he claimed was used for agricultural rituals and may represent storage in food silos.

The one-of-a-kind pottery vessel testifies to a previously undiscovered religious — and perhaps even political — side of food storage for this era in the ancient Near East, said Rosenberg last year.

“The evidence at Tel Tsaf tell the tale of the development of society in our area,” said Rosenberg. “Tel Tsaf closes the circle that begins 1,000 years earlier, when man begins to increasingly stop relying on the environment, and more and more on itself in terms of its own food production.”

An image from an earlier Tel Tsaf dig. (Yosef Garfinkel)

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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